Thursday, September 29, 2005

Tomorrow Never Knows

For those wondering, yes, I'm still gonna go on about that Time piece on "hurricanes and global warming." I think, if you read the article closely, you can see a harbinger of the future path of the debate. The article abruptly changes focus near the end to tell us all the following:

Some scientists are studying not just climate change but the even more alarming phenomenon of abrupt climate change. Complex systems like the atmosphere are known to move from one steady state to another with only very brief transitions in between. (Think of water, which when put over a flame becomes hotter and hotter until suddenly it turns into steam.) Ice cores taken from Greenland in the 1990s by geoscientist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University show that the last ice age came to an end not in the slow creep of geological time but in the quick pop of real time, with the entire planet abruptly warming in just three years.

"There are thresholds one crosses, and change runs a lot faster," Alley says. "Most of the time, climate responds as if it's being controlled by a dial, but occasionally it acts as if it's controlled by a switch." Adds Laurence Smith, an associate professor of geography at UCLA who has been studying fast climate change in the Arctic: "We face the possibility of abrupt changes that are economically and socially frightening."

Movie fans will recognize this immediately as the Day After Tomorrow scenario, a big hit with the "Coast-to-Coast AM" crowd. Those with some background in game theory will also recognize something else. There seems to be a shift away from the view of climate change as an incremental process and towards a view of climate change as a movement towards an unknowable catastophic tipping point; in game theory parlance what is known as "The Tragedy of the Commons." (TOTC)

The classic version of this multi-iterated game postulates a village common upon which the villagers can choose to either add a cow or not. The villager that adds a cow to the common will recieve a benefit, while those that do not will gain nothing. However, there is a catch. The common can only support so many cows, after which the ecosystem collapses and ALL the cows die and every villager loses big time. Another aspect to the game is that tipping point is unknown and unknowable to the villagers. In the classic two-player version of the TOTC there are two payout structures, one pre-tipping point, the other post-tipping point. Because of the two payout structure of the game, in most instances it is more worthwhile to keep adding cows, thus the poor dumb villagers push there luck further and further until the ultimate collapse happens and they all die of starvation. Serves them right.

Now, there are many problems that arise when you try to view real life situations as a version of TOTC. The most basic problem, with regards to this discussion, is the very artificial rule that requires the tipping point to be unknowable. This has to remain, or the psychological impulse that drives people to the ultimate collapse will be absent. However, it is difficult to find a real world example of this type of situation. There have been attempts to view, for example, fishing areas as examples of TOTC, but these do not work so well. In all of those cases fishermen can see a diminishing return and catch that will clue them in when an area is being overfished. Thus the impulse to add another boat to the fishing fleet can be tempered by the fact that you wont break even if yeilds fall too greatly. In any event, whatever is being played out it is not TOTC.

However, that doesn't keep folks from trying to maintain that this or that situation in the real world is really a TOTC scenario in the making. And such it will be with global warming. The people who want to impose drastic changes to our economic system and way of life in the name of global warming have come across a problem or two in pushing the incremental global warming model. One of the most pressing comes from the likes of Bjorn Lomborg, who compltely accepts global warming AND the human causation of the same, but who argues against the changes to our economic system and way of life. Instead, Lomborg argues that we should be supporting our economic system as being the best possible model to maintain the wealth needed to combat any problems arising from a warmer climate. This kind of argument drives the global warming crowd batty. Based on the piles of derision heaped upon Lomborg one would have thought he was a global warming dissenter, but he isn't. He just differs from them on what he thinks the proper political solution is to the problem. If you come across any of the anti-Lomborg material don't make the mistake of thinking it has anything to do with science, because it doesn't.

If the global warming crowd can get folks to accept that this is really a TOTC situation and NOT incremental change they can avoid all of these types of difficulties. For starters, they wouldn't be required to prove that a TOTC model correct. The tipping point is unknowable by definition. If anyone asks them how they know we are nearing the tipping point and what that point is exactly, they can throw up their hands and say, "But that is impossible! You are asking the impossible of me!" And thus endeth the debate.

Which brings up another, more sinister aspect, of making of global warming a TOTC. If you get enough people to go along with the idea it truly is a path to dictatorial power. The psychological implications of the game are profoundly anti-democratic. In order to keep the tipping point from being crossed you would have to give power to someone (going back to the village common) who will keep people from adding cows, or in this society tell us who may or may not have an automobile or who might engage in any activity that is deemed potentially harmful. And by the logic of the game that would be correct. It would spit in the face of the Constitution, but it isn't as if that hasn't happened before.

Before I give off I want to direct folks to this link from the blog DADvocate. He comes up with the following analysis on the history of hurricane intensity. It is very well done. His findings are summarized below:

Year Avg. WS Min Avg WS Max
1851-1860 92.53 111.32
1861-1870 85.27 103.33
1871-1880 93.55 111.75
1881-1890 92.32 110.23
1891-1900 96.19 115.48
1901-1910 87.11 106.11
1911-1920 93.38 113.10
1921-1930 96.38 115.77
1931-1940 101.11 118.95
1941-1950 95.75 114.38
1951-1960 96.24 116.76
1961-1970 102.36 120.36
1971-1980 90.00 109.17
1981-1990 89.13 109.33
1991-2000 99.86 117.14
2001-2004 93.44 112.78

If you can find "dramatic increases in intensity" in there you really must be good with the old divining rod.

1 comment:

Pursuit said...

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