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Global Warming is a Symptom, Not a Disease

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"Global Warming" is a misnomer. It is not a disease which can be treated and using that buzz-phrase as the poster child for what is happening to the Earth is inaccurate in the extreme.

The Earth IS heating up in places and is getting colder in places, hence the confusion. What we are actually experiencing is the Sapien effect. From a global population of ~one billion in 1800 to almost seven billion humans today, something is happening that people cannot grasp, they cannot measure, and they cannot predict without looking at the entire ecosystem and all of the interactions within it. Unfortunately, that ability is still beyond us. We can make measurements and chart short-term trends after they happen — but we cannot put the pieces together. There are too many pieces and the way they interact is dynamic.

The problem is that we are sailing into a "perfect storm". Most of it is probably our own creation. Some of it isn't. And some of it is merely conjectural, hypothetical, or simply has not happened yet. I hearken back to one of my favorite storytellers, Richard Burke, who wrote and presented the book and television series Connections, for connections are what we need to understand.

Pieces of the puzzle are in place. Jared Diamond's books and Richard Dawkins — solid and informative. But they do not address the bigger picture, merely components of it.

Let me produce an hypothesis. It is not, nor could it be, exhaustive. Thus it is flawed and incomplete. But I should merely like to try to provide a simple, accessible example of the scope and depth of the problem. I will start a free-association and hope that I manage to accomplish my task.

Parts of the ecosphere are warming and parts are cooling. The same thing occurs with a pot on the stove, with or without a frog in it. That fact feeds the naysayers, but the problem is altogether different. Everyone notices that the weather patterns are "wrong" but since they are not universally warmer, the case is made that the ecosystem is merely responding to the natural order. Yes and no. The natural order without the influence of humans is very different than the natural order would be without us.

Ecological change is measured scientifically, in limited locations, for the equivalent of no time at all geologically speaking. Those changes measure what happened one day or one week or one month at a certain place, but do not factor anything external to the discipline of the scientists involved. Someone in Greenland can observe hugely abnormal ice-melt. Another person in another place can observe snowfall and ice-pack where it never occurred before. But these observations do not counteract one another. They need to be considered for what they are…unusual. We can place blame later, but first we have to understand what our Earth is doing.

I can list a very few of the gross connections at play, but I cannot detail the specifics of what is triggering what. All I can say with any degree of certainty is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies and that we live within a closed system which is trending to chaos. That is to say that as some point in time all of the chemical reactions which can occur will have occurred. That portends badly for life.

We have been very successful as a species at producing food — both grain and meat — which has allowed our populations to explode. We now have almost seven billion people on a planet which can sustain ~3.5 billion. At seven billion we do not have sufficient food, water or energy. Creating more energy simply allows more food production which results in more people, all of whom want to eat, breathe, cook…and reproduce. Reproduction is not a choice. It is a genetic requirement and it happens successfully in direct proportion to food and water. It also happens in areas which have insufficient food and water and many people simply die from malnutrition, but the process continues.

We are running out of food and potable water. We have almost fished out the oceans. Obviously our reserves of fossil fuel are limited but arguing that issue is pointless, so I shall pass it by. We are dumping enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for it to have a measurable effect but many people simply refuse to believe it…so I won't bother with that, either.

But I will make a few comments. First, all of the methane which constituted the atmosphere of proto-earth is still here. It is simply locked up in ice and under permafrost. But it is being released more and more quickly every day. Forget carbon dioxide. The problematical greenhouse gas within the almost immediate future is methane from clathrates.

We (and the entire world) are dumping fertilizer at an enormous rate to increase crop yields. Fertilizer consists of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. A lot of it washes off and enters the river systems and then the oceans where it acidifies the water and creates dead zones. Dead zones (hypoxic/acidified) kill coral and prevent fish and crustaceans from living in the tidal zones, so there is a decreasing mechanism for replacing the fish we eat and those resources are then over-exploited — to extinction.

Algae blooms and the cycle continues. Ice melts where it shouldn't, methane is released as gas, the atmosphere becomes warmer, the oceans acidify and cannot support natural fish hatcheries, and the polar ice continues to melt. It does not make a bit of difference if Tibet is getting more snow than normal. Life as WE know it, as oxygen-breathing creatures, exists ENTIRELY at the air-sea interface. If the Atlantic Conveyor stops, the jet-stream will stop, weather will stop, and we will stop. And that could occur with days and almost certainly will. By the Solar Max of 2034, the Venus Syndrome will overpower the Earth's ability to prevent it.

The reason is simple. No one will stop doing what they are doing, mostly creating more babies and then being unable to feed, educate or even RAISE them to have a sense of personal responsibility and to think logically. The amount of change to the ecosphere isn't what was measured as change in one place at one time. It is an exponent of the RATE of change if all possible factors contributing to the change are included. At the moment that is an impossible task…so we cannot see what is really happening. We can only see small pictures from isolated areas.

We are on a quest for "green" energy for only one purpose: to allow the too many people we already have to make more people, who will breathe, eat, cook and demand even more energy to they can reproduce. We are simply not a sustainable species at this rate. We are already over the edge and in free-fall. If some internal or external event occurs to speed the process — an impactor, a nuclear war, a pandemic — we cannot deal with it.

In any case most of the green programs are either marketing ploys or guilt-assuagement programs. For instance, if you have a Prius, it required more fossil energy to build than you are ever going to save. You have simply sold your guilt to Toyota. So you feel better but the Earth doesn't because nothing changed.

The problem becomes immediately obvious. No one can say "We have too many people for this little planet….YOU have to go".

That won't play well. So half the world is burning coal faster and faster and oil and methane (natural gas) and they cannot be expected to stop. The other half is clear-cutting rain forest for firewood. We in the U.S. used to be able to to claim the title as the largest polluter. We have lost that title to China but not because we pollute any less.

(1) There can never be enough energy to appease the great maw of rapidly increasing populations, or enough food, or enough fresh water.

(2) We can never pay our way out of a rapidly increasing national debt. All we can do is force the lenders, by the threat of employing our incredible Gamma-ray machines on them, to keep increasing our credit line. That will not work forever. In fact, I think the President has already backed away from that concept.

(3) All of these issues interact, almost all of them in ways we cannot understand or do not even know exist. Because we cannot grasp the issues — and because we cannot act in concert on a planetary scale — we can never fully understand them. Thus we cannot mitigate them.

By the time the problem becomes obvious to everyone — and the first example which comes to mind is someone coming home only to discover their home completely engulfed in flame — there isn't much anyone can do.

Now..I have just told you a story, and you don't believe it. Of course you don't. People want and need to believe that someone is in charge and in control of the situation. Human nature.

But how many people live in California (just as an example)? And you KNOW that the San Andreas fault is going to cut loose eventually but you stay there. Do you know that when it does your homeowner's insurance won't cover the damage? Oh, no it won't. Call your agent right now and ask. And do you know that FEMA doesn't have the money to help you with that? I'll bet you did know but don't believe it could happen to you.

A really simple scenario might involve a moderate earthquake which cut the water supply to Southern California. How would you deal with that? Or maybe that's the wrong question. Have you ever considered "what if"?

So we could deal with any ONE problem — too much phosphorus in fertilizer, too much this, too little that — but mankind cannot deal with what will happen when it all comes together because we cannot imagine it happening.

It's out there for us to embrace.

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About DrTom

  • Phill Waters

    I sometimes wonder who really is telling the truth on the global warming issue with so much scientific evidence on one side and then so much on the other to refute it. Maybe we should just put it to a vote on who believes and who doesn’t and then take it from there.

  • Arafat Hossain Piyada

    People always tell Global warming is related to tree and ask everyone for greening. However, they always exclude other cause, simply because average people care less about it. Not many people know about Methane. They all know using chemical element is bad for environment but an average person never understand how bad that is. An average person never know how they can save energy and why really they need to save it! That’s where government plays a big role. They have to guide people towards the knowledge from where people can be little more sensible and understand what they going to leave for their future generation in this planet.

  • “You don’t have to believe in global warming to be a good steward of the earth.” — Miriam Goldberg
    My favorite quote on this subject.

  • JohnW

    We’ve been hearing overpopulation doom predictions for centuries, it won’t happen and I’ll tell you why. Technology. Man will advance technology to adapt to any and all problems that face us. More and and more people will merely drive us to spread out from this planet, taking entire ecosystems with us. When this planet does finally come to an end, it’ll be a sad day to our decedents but not THE END, and many species will have US to thank for saving them.

  • What a bizarre article. It’s certainly apt to remind us that anthropogenic global warming is only one of the many ecological holes we’ve dug for ourselves. So kudos for that.

    But you can’t argue that the variables are too complex to make accurate predictions about climate and in the next breath predict, with apparently total confidence, that the “Atlantic Conveyor” (it’s a global conveyor, BTW, of which the Atlantic currents are just a part) will shut down in 2034.

    In any case, the timeframe, should it happen, is on the order of decades rather than days. (It’s probably time you returned that movie to Blockbuster.) And the latest research actually shows that the North Atlantic Current shows no sign of slowing down.

  • Earl_E

    The Atlantic doesn’t appear to be slowing down, but the iceburgs in the Southern Ocean are going to change things regionally for sure.

    A Pine Island Glacier collapse would portend near immediate flooding world-wide.

    And if this geomagnetic increase over the last 2 weeks just reported today is any indication, we may have a sunspot peaking during an El Nino summer.

    Fire and hurricanes. Love it!

  • Fire and hurricanes. Love it!

    The Soufrière Hills volcano on Montserrat is erupting pyroclastic flows at the moment. Go there and you’ll be able to enjoy both at the same time! 🙂

  • anonymous

    Interesting point on thermodynamics. The answer is that we are using the potential energy of supernovas and stellar reactors for our level of chemical reactions.

    Assuming we get off planet, we can make these reactions work until the universe disintegrates. At which point, there will be a slew of bad movies…

  • Tom Burnett

    @Dreadful: You are becoming a favorite critic of mine. I live on the side of an active volcano (Kilauea) and adjacent to several others. In addition, the Big Island of Hawaii is the tsunami capital of the world and we have daily earthquakes. Follow us at the above link.

    I chose this locale. Montserrat is a bit boring for my taste.

  • Tom Burnett

    @John W: You have mentioned the one potential saving grace for humanity. My OPINION, which I do not care to defend, is that we are over the cliff and simply have not hit bottom yet. Others have completely opposite opinions…but none of us can predict the future. Wars, rumors of wars, impactors, volcanoes, pandemics; even things of which we know nothing can be out there. We have no way of knowing.

    I will opine that the solutions we find will not address the problems which will arise. We are not as smart as nature.

  • Tom Burnett

    @ Earl_E: Floating ice melts do not, of course, increase the sea level. The ice is already floating and has displaced it’s mass.

    Glacier floes from land massed into the ocean, however, can produce increased sea levels. My feeling is that those changes are insignificant in comparison to the methane clathrates the actic warming is releasing.

    Still, the effect is cumulative. A top starts so bob and weave as it loses energy but it still crosses it’s normal spin pattern regularly. At that point it is impossible to tell whether the top is becoming more or less stable. Only when it falls over is the result obvious. An irreversible.

  • Tom Burnett

    We now see an interesting phenomenon. The volcano in Iceland may subside or it may spew enough particulate matter into the atmosphere to actually cause global cooling. That will merely create a situation in which huge increases of atmospheric CO2 will be generated.

    And then, one day very soon, the dust will settle and the polar ice will melt within a few years, not a few eons and the methane released from the ice will replace oxygen…and we will become Venus.

  • Tom Burnett

    @Martina: CO2 is a precursor. It is interesting to note that despite all of the ‘carbon footprint’ rhetoric, CO2 emissions are increasing, not decreasing. Still, CO2 will do nothing more than melt the polar icecaps and the permafrost and the near-arctic oceans. That will allow the rapid release of all the methane that has been stored in ice for millennia. And methane is the trigger for the Venus effect.

    I disagree with a previous poster as regards the Atlantic Conveyor. I agree that it shows no signs of slowing down; but it won’t slow down over a period of time so that is what I expect to observe. It will reach a point, somewhere in the system, which will simply not be able to convey the current and the entire process will stop within hours or days.

    A bad example is two or three damaged heat tiles on a space shuttle. It doesn’t slow down; it suffers catastrophic destruction in seconds. Full speed to non-existent.

    My point is that large-scale CO2 emissions have pushed us over the cliff. Nothing we can do could possibly stop it. The next level will be the wholesale release of methane but it will not affect us over hundreds or thousands of years. One large release will be sudden, dramatic, and fatal because it will generate other large releases in a rolling cataclysmal event.

    That is if nothing else happens. If ONE iron earth-crosser 30 km in diameter impacts at any time in the future or one super-volcano erupts, the extinction event will be immediate.

    We have had about six near misses during the last year. None were detected more than 48 hours from pass (or impact) and most only 24. There is nothing we can do about that sort of event. Period. Rocky ice-balls which explode in the atmosphere (Tunguska) are a different sort of animal. A moderately sized chunk of iron impacting at 90 degrees or nearly so anywhere on earth will be a problem.

  • Tom Burnett

    I suppose it would be appropriate to try and demonstrate my point again. This site is not strictly scientific, but it is very interesting nonetheless.


    Scroll down to ‘Environment’ and then look at the current average temperature. Better yet, look closely at every heading and subtitle on the page, but particularly Environment and Water.

    I am willing to stipulate large errors in the numbers, but not by orders of magnitude. This is what is happening, now, today. We cannot stop it because we cannot limit our own population growth. Nature will have to do that for us.

    The problem is that we are creating a perfect storm. Eventually the population will push food, water, energy, natural resources; both renewable and not; the land, the oceans and the atmosphere into a domino effect of failure.

    We will not solve these problems because we cannot stop causing them.

  • Robby Keller

    Anybody who thinks global warming is false is misinformed. The ice in Antartica is melting fast. The animals there have a hard to finding food because of this. Antartica has been losing about 24 cubic miles every year.

  • A bad example is two or three damaged heat tiles on a space shuttle. It doesn’t slow down; it suffers catastrophic destruction in seconds. Full speed to non-existent.

    Indeed, an atrocious example, for reasons which I hope would be obvious.

    Like you said – orders of magnitude.

  • Marc Donovan

    Everyone has their pet theory on global warming, and there is evidence on both sides, but the money is going into the warming side. So even if the warming scientists see evidence of cooling they ignore the man behind the curtain because of a paycheck.

  • chrome

    Well, whatever it is we should prepare our selves what can happen and what would be our future if we will not participate and do the proper waste management and everything that concern on our environment.

  • It’s difficult for anyone to do anything. Buying a Prius simply shifts a person’s guilt upstream…in effect, selling it back to Toyota, because you can never save as much extra energy or fuel as it took to build the car. That premium you paid is just ‘guilt tax’ and those batteries will go bad eventually and simply compound the existing problem.

    In addition. more and more people are moving BACK to metropolitan areas for the few jobs that are still available. That complicates things even more.

    I would love everyone to read the April 2010 edition of Scientific American; the article: Boundaries for a healthy planet’.

    But the only way, to REALLY prepare is to live in a place where you can be completely self-sufficient and there are not many of those. You have to collect water and not depend on aquifers or public water or water external sources of water for agriculture. If you want meat or fish, you may have to hunt, kill, butcher and preserve it. You have to have your own sewage system and solar/wind/generator power and expect them to all fail periodically. You have to live in an area which will grow good year-round and doesn’t require heating or air conditioning. And you have to be comfortable with the possibility the economy can collapse.

    Almost no one in America can do that or, if they could, would want to. I am one of the ones who wants to; not as a survival strategy….but to see how difficult it is. I’m almost there, minus the off-grid power. I’m having fun, but I am retired.

  • anonymous

    john w exactly ……… technology will solve our problems , in spite of the government attempts to ration that technology as they see fit.