An unhappy anniversary

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the xxxx’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Pretty serious stuff.  Written 50 years ago, “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich had enormous impact.  However the xxxx elision concerned the 1970s.

4 years later The Club of Rome released the following broadside, “The Limits to Growth”Here is a direct quote from the jacket flap.

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren with thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts. What is even more alarming, the collapse will not come gradually, but with awsome suddenness, with no way of stopping it”

This sort of stuff is why the elderly (such as myself who will turn 80 this month) gradually become more and more cynical.   Unfortunately, over half the people alive today have no memories of these two debacles.  If you want to read more on this buy a book by a Yale Professor, Paul Sabin called “The Bet” concerning the intellectual conflict between Paul Ehrlich — he of the population bomb and Julian Simon. Ehrlich said we’d run out of just about everything shortly (presumably because of too many people), so economist Simon bet him that we wouldn’t. The intellectual war began in earnest in the 80’s and dragged on for a decade or so. I recommend the book and I think it really does capture the flavor of the times and the debate.  In it you will find John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, also a devout malthusian, although with a degree in physics.

The current barrage over global warming seems to be diminishing.  Particularly damning is the failure of the models to predict the absence of any change in global temperature for 17 years.  I tried not to be turned off by the similarly apocalyptic and Old Testament Prophetic tone of the proponents.  But any scientific theory to  be any good (aside from Evolution, and String theory) must make testable predictions, and those about climate have consistently failed for 20 years.

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  • Peter Shenkin  On April 12, 2018 at 1:26 am

    Why Malthus has been so wrong for so long is a good question. Why the oil hasn’t run out despite King Hubbert’s predictions is another. I’ve been around simulations long enough to distrust them; they’re terribly effective in helping people build artifacts, like automobiles, where the models can be refined in a rapid feedback loop against experiments with newly built structures and materials designed to test the model’s predictions. Simulating a complicated system over which you have no control is another matter. If the climate predictions of the ’80s had been correct, we’d be under water right now. The only way to tell whether today’s simulations are better is to wait and see whether their dire predictions come true. Why scientists decided to become prophets, and, moreover, true believers in their own marketing material is another good question. It’s much easier to design an A-bomb than to predict how a proposed drug will affect the human body; and it’s even terribly hard to predict how tightly said compound will bind to an enzyme in a test tube. Modeling the climate is at least as difficult. The reason that people disbelieve the scientists is that we’ve cried “Wolf” too many times. Of course, one of these days there’s going to be a real wolf out there and we might not do anything about it until it’s too late; but the reason some of us have become cynics is because too many of us have forgotten how to be skeptics.

  • andyextance  On April 15, 2018 at 5:02 am

    Your scepticism over prophets of doom like Ehrlich is well-placed. However, “the failure of the models to predict the absence of any change in global temperature for 17 years” is a bit inflammatory. The “absence of any change” has a whiff of confirmation bias to me, when there’s loads of evidence that temperature has in fact changed over recent years. See for example the 10 different data sets showing that 2017 was the third warmest year ever, with 2016 being the warmest, at this link: Models have in fact done a pretty good job, see for example: Climate change really is a big threat, but it’s one that many people are working to face, just like people have faced and handled many of the potential threats that Ehrlich identified. It all feels like part of a species-wide dialogue to me. We need people to point out threats they’ve seen, then we assess them and work on avoiding/mitigating them. Denying/downplaying the climate threat in the first place just makes it harder to deal with that threat. The debate should be on how we deal with it, not whether it exists.

  • luysii  On April 16, 2018 at 9:25 am

    Andy: don’t know why your comment took so long to show up.

    From a post in December 2009 — “None of the climate models mentioned in Science in 2009 [ Science vol. 326 pp. 28 – 29 ’09 (2 Oct ’09 ) ] predicted a pause in warming as long as we are currently experiencing (17 years and counting), even when they were run for a total of 700 years. The longest pause found was 15. They should be run again for many more years with the faster computers of today, to see if they produce the present pause. If not, the models, and their recommendations should be abandoned.”

    I am not in any way denying that things are getting warmer. I’m unconvinced the the mechanism proposed (CO2 elevation) is causative. Near where I live in Massachusetts there are dinosaur tracks from a time when the area was a tropical swamp millions of years ago. No SUV tracks are found there.

    As you note, extreme warming from any cause would be quite disruptive, and our focus should be on mitigation.

  • andyextance  On April 21, 2018 at 4:36 am

    I fail to understand how any scientist can question the role of CO2 in climate change. CO2 absorbs and re-emits infrared energy through the same mechanism that enables IR spectroscopy to work, so this is a fundamental that many scientists should be able to accept. CO2 absorbs in the right window for solar energy absorbed by the earth and that would otherwise be re-emitted back into space. We know that CO2 levels are steadily increasing – check out the Keeling curve: More CO2 means more energy absorption and scattering back to Earth, and therefore warming. No other explanation is as compelling. For bonus marks, there’s evidence that basically rules out other mechanisms, namely tropospheric cooling – the CO2 blanket that’s trapping energy near the Earth is logically therefore also stopping it reaching the upper atmosphere: If the cause were related to changes in solar output or anything else like that, or the Milankovitch cycles that we know have caused climate changes through history like you mention, the upper atmosphere should be warming at the same rate as the lower atmosphere. I respect your intellect – but I know that we can all be blind on some points. That is true for me too – I hope that it isn’t the case here, and I also hope that if it were, I’d be able to change my outlook.

  • Ash Jogalekar  On April 24, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    Even if there is a direct and dominant relationship between CO2 and warming, we also need to consider some the positive effects of increasing CO2. For instance it can help plants grow better, warm up cold places and make them better for crops and civilization. This kind of balance that discusses both the pros and the cons seems to be missing from the debate.

  • Dana  On May 2, 2018 at 5:26 am

    The other issue, even if the CO2 link is dominant, is to what extent the human contribution is important to that, considering that CO2 a crucial part of plant life and that humans are responsible for a small amount of total CO2 emissions (is it 3%? Or of that order?).

  • andyextance  On May 6, 2018 at 7:22 am

    These are all good questions. I’m much happier debating the pros and cons than whether it’s happening.

    Usually, the IPCC and Skeptical Science have answered basically all the questions. The IPCC WGI physical science basis covers the issue of plants, and yes, they will grow more, and in doing so take up some of the extra CO2. But logically, that therefore means they cannot be emitting this extra CO2 – that’s down to us. The carbon cycle is mentioned on p24 (PDF numbering – numbered as p26 at the bottom of the page) for the summary for policy makers from this working group: I can recommend reading the whole thing though as it makes a number of points that underline the human role.

    WGII explores impacts such as food production in some detail. While many plant species are set to benefit, many are also set to suffer, and the balance gets worse as warming proceeds, as shown in the Summary for Policymakers on p18/19 (PDF numbering – numbered as p17/18 at the bottom of the page):

    Again, the whole thing is worth a read, as it emphasises just how many other concerns there are beyond whether or not food production benefits.

    You may be skeptical about the IPCC, but it’s quite exemplary in who is entitled to participate – Saudi Arabia, for example, signs off on its output. I can recommend reading Science as a Contact Sport by Stephen Schneider for interesting details on its processes.

    I’ll wrap up with an observation that the effect on plants is one of areas where the science is less well established – WGII ranks it as medium confidence. This recent paper suggests that some the plants we thought would benefit actually do worse after a decade, and some of the ones we thought would do worse actually benefit:

    We clearly need to know more, but we also need to be acting, so we have to work with the knowledge we have.

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