Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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.). 


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.


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)