Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I sat next to Sir Martin Rees at dinner last night. He is the Royal Astronomer of the UK and the Master of Trinity College. I met him last year at the same dinner. He's amazingly smart and funny.

Ever since I'd posted my entry on aviation and global warming, I've been trying to figure out how to get to the bottom of this issue. The journalists told me that they just cited experts and the trick was to find good experts. I figured Sir Martin Rees would probably have an educated and balanced view.

Sir Martin Rees told me that he thought it was probably true that global warming was happening and that CO2 emissions contributed to it. He said that his main concern with global warming with the possibility that something non-linear would happen. In other words, his worry was not just the melting of the ice caps or the increased heat, but that this would cause something unpredictable and significant, such as a change in the circulation of the oceans.

He talked about some of the interesting mail he got. He said that he once got contacted by a cryogenic company which wanted his opinion on the idea of "the end of involuntary death" by freezing yourself before you die. When he replied that he'd rather be buried in a cemetery than a freezer in Calfornia, the company posted on their web site that "Rees is a deathist".

In a controversial book that he wrote called "Our Final Hour" he says that there is a 50/50 chance that our civilization will end this century. He mentioned that the original title of the book was "Our Final Century?" The British publishers took out the question mark and made it "Our Final Century". Then the US publishers change it to "Our Final Hour". ;-)

The dinner was off the record. "Nothing leaves this room. Just like Las Vegas." But I received permission from Sir Martin Rees to blog his comments. Sir Martin, if you see this and I've quoted you in error, please let me know. I don't have your email address.


Strange coincidence. I stumbled upon this site just yesterday:
After reading it you can be very sure that humanity won't last long much less forever. One of the more relevant and interesting parts was how man-made global warming could kick-start an overdue Ice Age. Truly depressing site.

The problem is, the planet has been much, much warmer - even within recorded history (the early middle ages) - and much, much cooler (the last ice age).

All of this happened without any human intervention. Heck, a single volcano blast emits more 'greenhouse' gases in most cases than the industrial world does in a year. Back in the 19th century, Krakatoa blowing in the Pacific caused "the year without a summer" in New England.

The bottom line - we don't understand climate at all well. We don't understand it well enough to make even hazy guesses about what is or is not happening. We can't get accurate weather forecasts more than about 48 hours out - what makes you think we can predict climate any better?

Also, go back and look at the climate scare literature from the 1970's - you'll find scads of material warning of the coming ice age due to human effects on climate.

The only constant is the scary rhetoric...

You can add this entry -- after demangling it -- to your address book ;-)

*M*ike *J*uliet *R*omeo
ast (dot) cam (dot) ac (dot) uk

Back in the 19th century, Krakatoa blowing in the Pacific caused "the year without a summer" in New England.

And the eruption of Mt St Helens caused a short period of cooling as well. Either anecdote does not, however, detract from the trend towards shorter warmer winters and warmer summers.

The bottom line - we don't understand climate at all well.

It would seem that we understand climate very well. Accurate prediction of hurricane paths and the spawning of tornadoes seems, to me at least, to indicate a high degree of meteorological advance. However, once again, an inability to generate a good weather report does not detract from the ability to detect long term trends in warming.

Also, go back and look at the climate scare literature from the 1970's

Paper results depended on whether CO^2 or aerosols were the main point of research. BTW the thirty-year cooling trend in the Northern Hemisphere stopped in the 70s.

The only constant is the scary rhetoric...

Or the ability to stick one's head in the sand and pretend that changes to what is essentially a closed system can have no effects.

Hear, hear debritto... What we do know is that the amount of CO2 has been rising (measured from taking ice cores in Antarctica) without a major event like a meteor impact or volcano eruption. (humans and the industrial revolution are the major event!)

Further, H2O is a much much more efficient greenhouse gas (read: bad)... and the amount of H2O in the atmosphere increases with the temperature.

I share Mr. Rees concern with global circulation patterns... for example, a fragile one is the north-atlantic current... if it is shut off, all of Western Europe will cease to be have such agreeable weather (compared to similar latitudes elsewhere). Another is the normally wet weather in Pacific Asia... imagine El Niño forever!

Now I know there's a lot of concern about the trapped carbon in fuels that we are releasing into the atmosphere by way of burning, but wasn't all this carbon originally in the atmosphere (like millions of years ago)? The carbon was trapped by plants, eaten by animals, and then buried under the earth. We're just putting it back (smile).

Any idea what the weather was like several million years ago?

The disclaimer is that I'm a particle physicist and not a climatologist. I read a few papers from that breed and know a half dozen good folks at Princeton, Cal Tech, Harvard and Cambridge in the UK.

It is fair to say an overwhelming majority of experts in the field believe we are experiencing human caused global warming. There is great disagreement in the exact mechanisms (as is always the case in science -- non-scientists just don't get it that new ideas are constantly tested) involved, but people will tell you that it is here and we have accelerated it.

The troubling issue, according to these people, is that it has some characteristics of a very non-linear event. Certainly there have been warmer times in the past, but we may be thrust into what becomes a discontinuity and much of the ecosystem may not be able to keep up. The second derivative may well be more important than the first.

It is very troubling. As a US citizen I am appalled by the fundamental lack of scientific literacy on the part of the administration -- of course they have powerful interests to protect on the short term and have little concern for the next few generations.

Derek: Venus is what it would look like to have all the CO2 sequestered in rocks in our atmosphere. 900 F surface temperature... 90 times our atmospheric pressure... sulfuric acid rain (that evaporates before it makes it to the ground)... in short, hell. Saturn's moon Titan looks most like what we think the Earth did at early stages...

We might understand weather pretty well, at least those things that push everything else out of the way like hurricanes and monsoons. These are such powerful phenomena that its pretty easy to track and predict them if there are no obstacles.

Human actions have very little effect or influence on weather. However, there's a chain of deductions that leads me to believe that human actions do have influence on climate. For those that don't know the difference, weather is what happens short-term, while climate is long-term trends that play out in terms of at least decades, if not centuries.

There's strong correlative evidence that climate is affected in pretty predictable ways by natural events such as volcanos errupting and meteors striking etc. It's probably safe to use those correlations to predict what our actions will do to climate. The effect of volcanos on the composition of the atmosphere is to raise the percentage of greenhouse gases and particulate material. Our emmissions do the same. Do the math.

I'm not an expert, but I have been reading Science News for about twenty years. Over the past twenty years, there have been a number of times when I've seen them report that new research shows that an old report was wrong. (Example: aluminum and Alzheimer's.) In the past twenty years, there have been a LOT of articles about research that supports a link between warmer weather and CO2 in the atmosphere. In those twenty years, I have *never* seen a report of a study that said, "whoops, we screwed up, we were wrong about global warming".

There was a recent article (I *think* in Science News) about mini-ice ages. There was two periods in relatively recent history when it got really cold. This article pointed out that once was right after smallpox and Europeans depopulated the Americas; the other was after the Black Plague depopulated Europe. The inference was that without as many people burning trees, the CO2 level dropped and it got cold.

Another article made me sleep much easier. It said that during the time of the dinosaurs, the CO2 concentration was about double what it is now. So we've got a ways to go before we turn into Venus.

I'm sorry that I don't have more specifics.

Disturbing indeed is the level of denial on this issue. But the level of obfuscation is what is truly troubling. The 'carbon' industries have done what the tobacco industry managed to do for years - fund their own research in order to create confusion in the minds of the public and pretend that there is some 'doubt' about the facts, which are simple, easily verified, and speak for themselves. It's very basic laboratory chemistry - greater CO2 levels result in greater heat retention in a given quantity of air - the earth's atmosphere has gone from around 250 to around 370 ppm of CO2 in the last 150 years - this coincides pretty closely with a rapid warming of the earth over this same period . In the right-wing press this is referred to as "junk science" and all manner of nonsense is tossed in the air to make it seem that there is some actual controversy here - witness the outing of industry shill Bjorn Lomborg and the resulting counter-spin. Take a visit to the Canadian Arctic, and tell the tribal elders that they are simply imagining the fact that their traditional wisdom is useless in the already irrevocably altered climate regime up there. See Gordon Liard's excellent report On Thin Ice.

"Like most Inuk her family paid close attention to ice, clouds, and temperature. Every hunter was a meteorologist. "Today many can't understand what's happening," she says. "They could once tell the weather, but not anymore."

We do understand some mechanism of the climate but we are very far from understanding the whole thing. Climate depend on a lot of factor and is intimately linked to the oceans. If something disrupt the balance in one these element it affect the other. The mechanism are complex and interdependant.

There is a global warming. a few years ago people could have argued about that but not anymore, everybody agrees on that today. Is that the fault of the human? That is an another question and we don't have the answer yet. The climate as we know it today has been pretty stable for the last 12 000 years. During this period the conditions were favorable for the growth of the humanity.

Studies shows that the climate have varied during the life or the earth. But what is for sure is that humanity is releasing large amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, releasing chemical substances in the ecosystem, exercing a growing presure on the ecosystem. What is for sure too is that these actions will have effects on the ecosystem we are a part of...

We here at Scari.Org can make no substantial contribution to mitigation of Global Warming, however, there are measures that may make our passing more comforting

It's one small step for we who wish a more beautiful world while it lasts.
Yoni Chockalingam