Sunday, September 27, 2020

Do we Still have a Chance? The Challenge of Emergency Measures for the Survival of Humankind

  

The epidemic of COVID-19 seems to have snuffed out all other subjects of debate. But there remain problems that we could define as a little more worrisome than the COVID pandemic, for instance, the possibility of the extinction of humankind and, perhaps, of the Earth's biosphere. Here Dr. Ye Tao is giving an effective presentation that highlights that we are in a dire emergency. Perhaps, the pandemic can at least teach us what NOT to do in an emergency.

 Caution: highly catastrophistic post!


The Problem

The clip above shows a recent talk by Dr. Ye Tao, interesting for several reasons. One is how it goes to the core of the climate story with the typical approach of the physicists: based on data and on the laws of physics. This approach bypasses much of the ongoing debate, in large part hijacked by modelers and their opponents. 

Unfortunately, the emphasis on models has generated the diffuse misunderstanding that climate change is mainly a question of models and that the future climate can be predicted by models. That resulted in an attempt by skeptics to show that models generated poor predictions in the past. From that, they maintain that if models can't predict things right, then climate change doesn't exist or is not a problem. One reason, although not the only one, why the debate remains stuck and leads to no decisions.

Instead, if you go to the basic physics of the issue, you'll discover that models are certainly wrong as predictive tools simply because they can't include the non-linear forces that push the system to change its state by going through a tipping point. That doesn't mean that models can't identify at least some of the tipping points of the system, nor that they can't estimate when these transitions could occur. But these estimations are extremely uncertain and, for all we know, the problem could well be way worse than models can calculate.

Once we do our due diligence, the results are -- well -- let's say a bit uncomfortable. There are many uncertainties, but the robust result is that we are heading for disaster. We can't even rule out the total extinction of the biosphere. But even the consequences of a warming over 3-4 °C would be more than sufficient for the extinction of our civilization, if not of humans as a species.

It may well be too late for conventional solutions: double-pane windows and bicycling to work won't help us much. Even if we could switch to 100% renewable energy tomorrow morning, the warming trajectory may well continue along with the current trends. So, how early is too late? We don't know, but Dr. Tao has a nice touch when he looks at the audience and says: "all of you will experience some of these effects" (and some in the audience have white hair.). 

Solutions

If this is how things stand, then what do we do? Some people seem to find a certain satisfaction in joining the various groups that go under names such as "near term extinction" where they tell each other "we are all going to die soon." But others have a more aggressive reaction. If this is a dire emergency (and let me repeat that it is), shouldn't we think of extreme emergency measures? This is what Dr. Tao proposes. 

The main point of the proposal is to counter the greenhouse effect of CO2 by increasing the earth's albedo (the fraction of light reflected in space). The idea is to use standard, aluminum-coated mirrors to be deployed on the Earth's surface, either on land on the surface of water bodies. Of course, the surface needed would be enormous, of the order of 3%-4% of the total if we want to offset the heat forcing generated by the current concentration of CO2. It is a lot, but not inconceivable. 

This is not the only element of Tao's proposal. The plan pivots around mirrors to be used to generate renewable energy in concentrating solar plants. Mirrors should also be used to create the high temperatures needed to decompose calcium carbonate from seashells in order to capture CO2, which would then be sequestered underground. The calcium oxide resulting from the process would be dissolved back into the ocean, where it would reduce the acidification problem. The production of edible mollusks would also ease, or even solve, the problem of world hunger.

The plan is as good as the best plans of mice and men (those that tend to gang agley) can be. But, as you can probably guess, it suffers from a typical problem with physicists, their tendency to the "back of the envelope" approach to problems. Physicists are normally great at determining what's possible and what's not possible on the basis of the laws of physics. The problem is that then the envelope is handled to an engineer, who is tasked to build the spaceship that will travel all the way to Mars. Usually, it is not so easy. 

This problem appears very clearly with Dr. Tao's approach. The physics is good, but how about the engineering? I don't have enough details of the plan to enter into a detailed assessment, but the questions are many. 

Just a few examples: if the mirrors are placed on land, how to make sure they are kept clean and shiny? If they are on water, how to avoid blotting out entire ecosystems? Decomposing calcium carbonate is not a new idea in order to capture CO2 from the atmosphere. But does it have advantages over methods that work at low temperatures? Then, reflective devices placed in space or high altitude have many advantages over those placed on land: for one thing, you don't have to protect them from wind and dust. 

As a more basic problem, the proposal takes into account the fact that mirrors can't do anything against acidification. That's the reason for removing excess CO2 by using the CaCO3/CaO reaction. But there is a basic problem, here: if you want to eliminate acidification, you have to remove all the excess CO2, but if you can do that, then you don't need mirrors. The idea seems to be that there is an optimal ratio of effort and costs to balance the effect of mirrors and CO2 removal. But does such a ratio exists? And how do we determine it?

There would be a lot more to say, but let me explain my position. I am not saying that Dr. Tao's plan is impossible (and you probably remember something that Arthur Clarke said and that goes as "when an old and distinguished scientist says that something is impossible, he is almost certainly wrong." It is not a law of physics, but it has a certain value). On the contrary, I think that the plan is bold, interesting, and deserves to be considered, although there is a considerable need for refining it. The problem goes beyond the specific geoengineering technologies that we might choose to deploy in an emergency situation. The question is how do we manage a planetary crisis that requires emergency measures

 

 The problem with emergencies.

The collective intelligence of the current Western society is comparable to that of a five-year-old child. Society, like children, operates mainly in an emotion-driven mode. Things are either ignored or they take all the attention, and the attention span is very short. So, our society either ignores problems or it goes in full "emergency mode." It is a switch, it is either on or off. 

We saw the switch to emergency mode with the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a minor perturbation, but it was amplified by the media to the point that Western society went into full panic. That generated the need for action, a typical behavior of human beings that even has a name: "action bias". We tend to think that "doing something" is always better than doing nothing, even though there is no evidence that a certain action will be effective to solve the problem. It is a typical problem in medicine where doctors tend to overreact before having sufficient data.

In the case of the COVID pandemics, society reacted by acting on the problems, suddenly dumping all the concerns about human rights, the economy, and people's welfare. To say nothing about neglecting other pathologies, even much more deadly ones than the COVID-19 itself. This behavior was pushed onward by a collective intoxication that saw the virus as an existential threat to be fought by all conceivable means, no matter what the negative consequences. Action bias, indeed.

Such a switch to emergency never happened for climate change, at least so far. It is not obvious that it will ever occur: climate change occurs slowly and society is simply unable to react to anything not directly detectable on a time scale shorter than a few months. But what if, suddenly, we were to see climate change treated with the same frenzied request of "doing something" that we saw with the pandemic?

If that were to occur, we would probably see the same kind of collective intoxication we saw for the virus and the resulting desperate attempts to do something, no matter what, and the hell with the consequences. Tao's mirrors might be seen as the magic wand that dispels global warming, but there are other ways that could go in parallel. Fertilizing the ocean with iron oxide, lobbing nukes into the caldera of active volcanoes, or getting rid of most of humankind (not a solution I propose!!). The important thing is to do something, do something, do something. Action bias, indeed.

This is how things stand: we are facing a switch between two equally dangerous states: doing nothing against climate change or doing something that could worsen the problem. But, unfortunately, society has no other means to manage emergencies than to go into a collective frenzy in which the deadly mechanism of enhancing feedback leads to the disappearance of all intermediate approaches.

You may have noticed how, in this blog, recently I have been examining the record of some strong leaders of the past (Napoleon 3rd, Mussolini, Hitler). It was because I was thinking of the evolution of societal emergency situations. Typically, dissent is eliminated (sometimes by physically eliminating dissenters) and strong leaders are chosen.  Unfortunately, without the possibility of dissenting by expressing alternative opinions, no rational planning is possible. Then, the record of strong leaders is abysmally bad: not only they are unable to solve problems, but they tend to worsen them and to do much damage in the process -- including killing large numbers of people. 

Do we still have time to choose a rational course of action? In a paper I published in 2016, together with my colleagues Sgouridis and Csala, we outlined the requirements for building up a renewable energy supply system fast enough to be able to stop the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere before it is too late. Our results showed that it was expensive, but possible. But, four years later, not enough of what would have been needed was done (not that we expected anything different, of course!). So, it seems that we are stuck between two unappealing alternatives: doing nothing or doing something desperate. Maybe we can find solace in thinking that, at least, we can learn what NOT to do in a future crisis from the way the COVID crisis was (mis)managed. All crises are also opportunities and the pandemic might have been one. But sometimes you wish you didn't have so many opportunities. (I told you at the beginning that this was a catastrophistic post!)



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

This is really too catastrophistic, professor. You know what I'll do? I'll buy myself a new diesel-powered SUV and I'll just be very happy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Politics in the Age of the Coronavirus. What can we learn from the Italian Elections?

 

Sep 20, 2020. The president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, votes at the Italian regional elections. In these elections, the first in the age of the COVID, the victory went to the Left largely by means of over a better strategy in managing people's perceptions of the epidemic. Here, I report some personal considerations on how this result may tell us something about the coming US presidential election.

 

The regional elections of this weekend in Italy were held after a debate still dominated by the COVID epidemics. Although the virus itself was not mentioned so much in the speeches and in the political programs, the rest of the debate was shallow and lacking ideas on both sides. The Left was unable to propose anything better than "restarting growth," and the Right little more than vague talks of "Italexit."

So, the COVID epidemic hovered like a ghost over everything that was said and done. The Left coalition, the parties supporting the current government, had placed their bets on appearing tough on the epidemic. The government-controlled media tried to reinforce this perception by doing their best to terrorize citizens with daily catastrophistic reports. This strategy had a risk: if the elderly were to stay at home for fear of being infected at the polling station, then a disaster was looming for those parties that relied on their vote: in particular the Democratic Party (the former communists). 

The Right, instead, never found a coherent strategy on the epidemic. Sometimes, it tried to convince its electorate that the epidemic was brought to Italy by black immigrants from Africa, but that worked only on people already convinced that all evils in Italy arrive from Africa. At other times, the Right also tried to be even more catastrophist than the government, with the media they controlled presenting scary news about imminent catastrophes. That had little success against the government strategy of presenting itself as having been successful in containing the epidemic. Besides, significant fraction of the electoral base of the Right is formed of professionals, people owning small businesses, and the like. They had been heavily damaged by the lockdown enacted in Spring and they would have been favorable to a relaxation of the rules, but the Right never took that position for fear of being accused of "denialism."

In the end, the voting polls returned a clear victory for the Left. That doesn't mean that the Right doesn't have a majority at the national level, but the Left managed to avoid a landslide loss and to gain a number of clear victories in strategic regions such as in Tuscany. One thing that probably helped the Left was that the scare of the early times of the epidemic had clearly subsided. As you can see in the image below, we learn from Google Trends that the interest in the Coronavirus story peaked in April and then subsided. It is normal: you can't keep people scared on the same thing for more than a few months.

So, old people were not scared of being infected at the polling stations and the number of voters was even larger than in the previous regional elections. The Democratic Party, widely considered a dinosaur on its way to extinction, obtained the best result, beating the Right-wing League. The government coalition also scored a victory by supporting a referendum to reduce the number of senators and representatives. The leader of the League, Mr. Salvini, declared that this was "not a defeat" and in politics that means "we lost." 

If these results can be seen as an indication of the current political trends, then we can learn something relevant for the coming presidential elections of November in the US. Also in the US, the epidemic is being used as a political weapon, with the Left pulling hard on the catastrophism lever, while the Right tends to resist the containment measures. The difference is that in the US the Right is in power. That gives the Left the possibility of an all-out campaign of accusations of genocide and murder against the President.

If Italy teaches us a lesson, Trump may well be defeated if the Dems can keep the terror campaign going. On the other hand, there is a limit to how long you can keep people scared. The Google Trends data for the US are very similar to those for Italy, with the interest in the epidemic clearly declining.

 

 

Consider also that the mortality in the US is declining, as I discuss below, and that the epidemic is clearly waning. So, Trump will have a chance to divert the attention of the public to matters other than the coronavirus, law and order for instance. If he succeeds, he may well be re-elected. As we all know, he has a remarkable capability of upsetting his adversaries, pushing them to make mistakes. As usual, whatever will happen, it will surprise us.


Note: some people accuse me of "Trumpism," but I am no fan of Donald Trump, not at all. I consider him a disaster for many reasons, including his destructive policies on everything that has to do with the ecosystem. I do recognize, however, that he has made less damage to humankind than most of his predecessors, at least so far.

Here is an article that I wrote on Sep 11, 2020 for the Italian site "Pillole di Ottimismo" (Pills of Optimism) (the graphs are updated)
 

By Ugo Bardi -- Faculty Member at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Florence where he deals with mathematical models applied to the ecosystem and climate change. (1)

Post published on the Facebook site of "pills of optimism" 11 September 2020 (translated using Yandex)

 💊  💊  💊 The pandemic has had a strong political impact from the beginning in the United States, with the Democratic left accusing Trump of extermination plans and the Republican right shaking the specter of a health dictatorship. In fact, while it is true that the US was hit quite heavily by Covid-19, the damage was no worse than in many European countries. Also in the US, the epidemic seems to be declining and moving toward disappearing. But the political controversy will not end soon! 💊 💊 💊

The political interpretation of the pandemic from Covid-19 is present in all countries of the world, including Italy. But in the United States it has led to a particularly heated clash between Republicans and Democrats ahead of the presidential election coming in November.

The administration of President Trump has privileged from the beginning economic activities over measures such as lockdowns, closures, etc. We've also seen the extreme "Libertarian" wing of Republicans sometimes go down to the square without a mask and clutching automatic rifles to protest the restrictions.

On the opposite side, the Democratic Left did not use half-words in accusing Trump of extermination plans. For example, in March The "Daily Beast" talked about 1.8 million victims of the epidemic, supposedly the result of the policies of the Trump administration (2).

This political polarization has certainly been aggravated by the media, which have done their best to misinform American citizens with their sensationalism. The result was disastrous: according to a recent survey (3), the average perception of Americans overestimated by more than a factor 200 (!!) the number of victims of the epidemic. That is, the average estimate made by the Americans was 30 million deaths while the total at the time of the investigation was less than 150 thousand. It must be said that the Europeans did not do much better (unfortunately the data for Italy are missing).

But, apart from the media exaggerations and the exasperated controversy, what really happened in the United States? I am not here to praise Trump, who has plenty of flaws, but I think we can say that the epidemic in the US did not go worse than in other countries.

The graphs of deaths and daily cases and deaths in the United States are shown at the bottom of this post. I told you in a previous post (4) about how the curves describing epidemics normally follow a "bell-shaped" curve. The curve grows rapidly at first, then slows down, reverses the trend, and eventually goes to zero. This is a trend that has been seen well in many European countries. In the US, something similar was seen, but with two fairly separate "bells", corresponding to a first and a second wave. The second was much less intense than the first in terms of daily mortality (5).



Fig 1 from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

There is also a second wave of positive tests, but it is declining, too.


 

Fig  2 from https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/testing/individual-states,


Within some limits, these two waves in the US resemble the Italian case, where we have recently seen an increase in the number of positive cases. But there are differences: in Italy, the second wave did not generate a significant increase in daily deaths. In the US, however, the increase in mortality was evident already a week after the start of the trend of increasing cases.

These different trends can be explained quite well on the basis of the available data. In Italy, the increase in positive cases is mainly (though not only) related to the increase in the number of tests. In the United States, however, the second wave is mainly the result of geographical differences.

In America, the epidemic of COVID first came to the cities of the East Coast, which are the most "European" area of the USA. There, it followed a cycle of growth and decline similar to what was seen in Europe. Then, it spread to the central states that are a different world, socially and economically. Here, the wave of the virus moved more slowly, forming precisely the second "bell" of the curve.

It is clear that the epidemic in the US is not over yet, but you can also see that the second bell curve for mortality had its peak towards the beginning of August and is now in evident decline. Less clear the form of positive cases but, as always, are numbers that depend on the number of tests done. If you look at the relationship between positives and tests, you see that it is in sharp decline (6), another indication that the epidemic is in decline.

Extrapolating the available data on the basis of the concept of "the bell curve", the mortality of the epidemic in the USA could deliver around 200 thousand deaths that, compared to the 330 million inhabitants corresponds to about 0.06% of the population. It is a value almost equal to that of Italy with 35,000 deaths out of 60 million people. In the world ranking of deaths relative to the population, according to "worldometer," the United States currently ranks eleventh. They do better than European countries like England, Spain, and Belgium.

But if you want to be pessimistic, you can look at the projections of IHME (6) that talk about 400 thousand deaths in the US at the end of the year in the "current scenario". But keep in mind that IHME uses models that have proven to be unreliable (7). Finally, note that almost three million people die every year in the US from all causes. No matter what happens, the mortality due to the COVID-19 epidemic will remain well below these values.

At this point, we should talk about containment measures, a subject of endless controversy in the US just as we do. Here, however, the story is complicated with the 50 states of the Union that have all taken different measures, on different dates, with different results. The so-called "red states "(Republican majority) have generally taken less restrictive measures than the "blue states " (Democratic majority), but finding a significant correlation with the course of the epidemic is not obvious. We will know more when the cycle is really over and -- especially -- after the November elections.

What we can say is that the epidemic has done appalling damage to the US economy (8). An illustrious victim of the contraction has been the American oil industry, particularly the one dedicated to the extraction of the so-called "shale oil". This oil is a key element of the strategy that President Trump has called "Enegy Dominance". But shale oil is an expensive resource and the contraction in demand has put producers into serious trouble. At the moment, we only read about closures, unemployment, production cuts, and things like that. It is not known if and how the industry will recover in the future, but it is likely that the recent phase of rapid growth of American oil production is over by (9).

The case of the USA also has many interesting elements for our situation, especially to try to understand what the long-term effect of the epidemic will be on the political and economic situation. In any case, it is difficult to expect good things from the upcoming elections with public opinion so heavily bewildered by the media. Let us take comfort in thinking that the epidemic seems to be decreasing in the world (4).


1. https://ugobardihomepage.blogspot.com/2016/04/ugo-bardis-personal-home-page.html
2. https://www.thedailybeast.com/trumps-crazy-coronavirus-math-will-kill-as-many-as-18-million-americans
3. https://www.kekstcnc.com/media/2793/kekstcnc_research_covid-19_opinion_tracker_wave-4.pdf
4. https://ugobardi.blogspot.com/2020/09/buone-notizie-dal-mondo-comincia-il.html
5. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/
6. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/testing/individual-states/usa
7. https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america?view=total-deaths&tab=trend
8. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/27/us-gdp-q2-2020-second-reading.html
9. https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/US-Oil-Dominance-Is-Coming-To-An-End.html

Who

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)