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« To PSA or not PSA (Sujatha) | Main | What if we win? »

October 07, 2011


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@ Prasad:

This is a very difficult issue to assess. Of course, funding long term research into terra-forming our own planet seems, on its face, an easy decision. Proper diet and exercise are better for good health, but if we can invent a calorie regulation pill and the perfect vitamin-supplement pill then tomorrow's obesity problem will be solved forever.

Big technology solutions to earth science problems are not new. During the Vietnam war there were two problems the U.S. tried to solve in order to deny the enemy safe hiding. The first problem was the cover of jungle canopy. The solution was massive defoliation with the chemical Agent Orange. Everyone regrets implementing this horrible idea.

The second problem was the cover of night. It was proposed to launch huge reflector mirrors to provide an eternal daylight over the areas threatened by enemy forces. The technology was already available and required relatively cheap expanses of milar fabric in orbit. The only reason it was not implemented, at that time, was that aiming technology was not accurate enough. A small error could result in the illumination of Minnesota, instead of the country of Laos.

It's instructive to study the long term effects of the attempts to control the Mississippi River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is an amazing organization that tackles feats of engineering that can boggle the imagination. They carry out policy that is determined by the Federal government.

Solving problems of maintaining unfettered navigation of the Mississippi had created new problems. Dredging and channeling created very high speeds of water flow on many parts of the River. This and other derivative problems seriously question the accumulation of efforts to tame the mighty Mississippi. There is a case for returning the Mississippi to its natural state and relocating people and towns out of the large areas of flood plains to let nature do its thing.

In my view, Freeman Dyson, Nobel astrophysicist and mathematician, makes a good point about contemplating where global climate change may take us. If the northern polar ice cap is melting, would we benefit from ocean trade routes that were previously denied us? Would a wet and green Sahara be a boon to earth in providing more arable land to feed the world? There are downsides to contemplate, as well.

One of my major concerns is that effective, big science solutions to climate related problems would be used as instruments of war, or for the coercion of whole nations. It is very easy to envision the withholding of nighttime reflected sunlight to a country that needs the extended growing time to sustain its national economy or feed it own people.

I am one of those people who need a lot of prodding and help to maintain a healthy regimen of diet and exercise. Do I want to fund a 'magic bullet' research effort so I don't have to feel guilty about my inconsistent regimen? I would if I were sure that it could be done. I'm just not that confident.


Thanks for the response! Some thoughts:

The Mississippi river issue I take your point on, and agree technological solutions can have - often do have - unforeseen consequences. I would be very surprised if changing the temperature (through descendents of techniques like seeding the oceans with iron or the atmosphere with sulphur, for example) had no negative consequences. My very broad response would be just that on balance human technological advance has been a Good Thing, not a bad one, so that we should at least address the possibility that this will continue to hold in the present instance. That alone is reason to reject stopping research on such questions. I also rather dislike the ethos of cowering in fear from difficult technical challenges. We are given backbone and ought to act like it, instead of exalting lightning and thunder like some prehistoric primitive.

- I don't think Vietnam is either here or there, really. It was a horrible war, and a cruel one. Yes. Don't think Agent Orange (wouldn't they just have used forest fires earlier?) is a representative technology re climate change. The non-technological means used in that war were not exactly humane. Nor, as we remember from the example of Stalin or Hitler, does one need anything more profound than the large-scale apparatus of a modern state to starve or gas millions with pretty low-tech means!

- I think Dyson is right to think about what higher temperature would mean in concrete terms for different parts of the world. In general the current debate hopelessly confuses the non-CO2-contaminated temperature with the optimal temperature. Our ideal temperature (treating it as a single number, the mean, here. The distributions matter even more, especially in conjunction with a question like what "our" means) may be the 1800 temperature, the 1950 temperature, or the projected 2050 temperature. (I suspect it lies in the past). If so, that's the temperature we should be striving to maintain. If it turns out the planet was on a natural downward temperature trend that's been overpowered by CO2, the proper response may be to increase CO2 levels to compensate, not to ignore the problem simply because it's "natural."

- Again on the diet, everything I know about diets tells me they don't work, that I'll probably never lose the ten pounds I've gained over the past five years. Actively not funding diet pill research hoping that'll goad me into running ten kilometers a day seems like an unduly optimistic strategy.

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