At the outset, it is important to acknowledge we humans have been deluding ourselves for some time. This idea that somehow we are in control of the environment ( either positively or negatively ) is simply delusional. Stop and think about it. When you do, you realize that we ( as individuals ) have precious little control over anything but our minds -and for some of us, not so much control there either.
Not that we don’t have the best of intentions. Not that we don’t have limited success. We can control things like the temperature in very small spaces. We build homes and maintain them to keep ourselves insulated against environmental extremes.
Our control, however, is both limited and temporary. Although it is not going to happen for another 5 billion years, consider that our own Sun will someday swell into a red giant and swallow the Earth. Now that will really be global warming.
It all goes back to the shift in numbering in the west that gave us the ability to calculate risk. The Arabs, by way of invasion of India, had exposure to the Hindu numbering system. In turn, this enabled them to incorporate eastern intellectual advances into their own scholarship, scientific research, and experimentation. The impact was tremendous, first for the Arabs and then for the West.
In the hands of the Arabs, the Hindu numbers would transform mathematics and measurement in astronomy, navigation, and commerce. New methods of calculation gradually replaced the abacus, which for centuries had been the only tool for doing arithmetic everywhere from the Mayans in the western hemisphere, across Europe, to India and the Orient. 
As the new numbering system took the place of the simple abacus over the next 500 years, writing out calculations became preferred over movable counters. This written computation encouraged abstract thinking. In turn areas of mathematics never conceived of in the past came to the forefront. Sea voyages became longer, time-keeping more accurate, architecture more ambitious, and production methods more elaborate. If you want to contemplate the the impact, consider how the modern world would look if we still measured and counted with I, V, X, L, C, D, and M-or with the Greek or Hebrew letters that stood for numbers.
The upside to abstract thinking should be completely obvious. Our advances in understanding have created the technological advances to support humanity’s ever swelling population. Today, we have the capacity to feed, shelter, and ensure the health and safety of every one of our 7 billion+ companions on this little blue-green marble in space. Where we fail to do so is a largely a failing of political and religious systems that govern those regions.
The downside to abstract thinking is a little less obvious. As it turns out, each time we achieve some limited success in temporarily controlling the external world, we get it in our heads that we, in fact, CAN control the external world. Our modern calculator and simulator for abstract thinking, the computer, has only served to enhance our hubris and delusional state.
Consider Frank Drake’s the now-famous Drake equation from 1960:
N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL [where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live.]
The problem with this serious-looking equation is that it makes speculation appear to be legitimate intellectual inquiry. Drake’s equation has variables that cannot be known. Worse yet, most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work this equation is to fill in with guesses.
Of course, when you are guessing, you are substituting your personal prejudices for actual data.
In 1983, computational advances in computing allowed Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich to appear on the Johnny Carson show a combined 65 times to pump their paper “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.” Following these appearances, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. At the heart of their undertaking was an equation, never specifically expressed, but one that could be paraphrased as follows:
Ds = Wn Ws Wh Tf Tb Pt Pr Pe etc (The amount of tropospheric dust = # warheads x size warheads x warhead detonation height x flammability of targets x Target burn duration x Particles entering the Troposphere x Particle reflectivity x Particle endurance, and so on.)
The Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero and gave rise to the mostly harmless SETI project. In the case of Sagan and company, the study not only made those guesses, but concluded they were catastrophic. According to Sagan and his coworkers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. In contrast, the greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between .5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age.
One might expect such claims to be the subject of some scientific dispute. However, Sagan and his coauthors were prepared. Nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign.
Being very direct, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. Also true of Sagan and Ehrlich’s Nuclear Winter. Expressions that can mean anything mean nothing. Like many others, I take a hard view that actual science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. Any equation which cannot be tested is not science. Such things are unquestionably the domain of faith.
Faith is defined as the firm belief in a thing for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the heavens and earth in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. The belief that Nuclear Winter will drop the earth’s temperature by 35 degrees is a matter of faith. Where you stand by faith, you are participating in religion.
Ok, so we can all agree that the planet, as measured for the restricted range of the last ~130 years, appears to be warming. Note, that this has nothing to do with the much lauded “Scientific Consensus” politicians are so pleased to pump on the Tonight Show. This statement of fact is based on the temperature measurements we have been able to make over time.
ASIDE: Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. No one says that the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody invokes the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to someone engaged in stating a scientific conclusion to speak this way.
So, there are (at least) two questions we need to address: (a) what are the contributing factors to this warming? (b) what (if anything) can (or should) be done?
The first question has been the subject of study for some time now. According to their published history, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created in 1988. Set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to provide the governments of the world with a scientific view of what is happening to the world’s climate. The initial task for the IPCC as outlined in the UN General Assembly Resolution 43/53 in December 1988 was to “prepare a comprehensive review and recommendations with respect to the state of knowledge of the science of climate change; social and economic impact of climate change, and possible response strategies and elements for inclusion in a possible future international convention on climate.”
While they do have plenty of computer models, these models include variables that are not measurable. As we reviewed before, when you are guessing, you are not in the realm of science. So let’s just assume that there is currently a trend towards increasing temperature – albeit a trend with very large variance in potential outcomes.
So, what to do about it…
I think nearly everyone agrees that a reduction in greenhouse gasses is part of the goal, as is carbon sequestration. Others have suggested that perhaps just by reflecting back around 1% of the sunlight (and people should understand that global warming is a 1% problem – which over time is adding up) it would have the desired cooling effect irrespective of what we do about carbon and other greenhouse gasses. Scientifically speaking no matter what we do on the carbon emissions front TODAY the impact of these actions are likely 200 to 20,000 years down the road.
Oddly enough, Beef might just be the answer in the short term. Hell, it might be the answer for the long term as well.
You see, an often overlooked source of greenhouse gas and carbon are the desertified areas of our planet. As you can see from the map, in environments where humidity is guaranteed throughout the year it is almost impossible to create vast desertified areas. No matter what you do, nature covers it up so quickly. And we have environments where we have months of humidity followed by months of dryness, and that is where desertification is occurring.
Allan Savory gives a very compelling TED Talk on the subject. He talks about an area of the Tihamah Desert subjected to 25 millimeters of rainfall. In terms of drums of water, each containing 200 liters, over 1,000 drums of water fell on every hectare of the land in one. In less than a day, the land will be devoid of all evidence of rain. Some of the water runs off as flooding, but most of the water that soaked into the soil has now simply evaporated – water vapor in the atmosphere is a very potent greenhouse gas. Because water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter, when we damage soils, we send off carbon back to the atmosphere.
We have just simply not understood why desertification really began to happen en mass almost 10,000 years ago. We also don’t really understand why has it accelerated lately. Again there are no models, just guesses. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying to stop it.
One of the early thoughts we had was that we would need to protect the land from overgrazing. So we reduced grazing animal populations. The problem there is that any seasonal grass that is left over at the end of the wet season has to decay biologically before the next growing season. If it doesn’t, the grassland and the soil begin to die leading to desertification.
So absent biological decay ( here meaning grazing animals to come and eat the grass), the decay must be handled by oxidation which is a very slow process. In fact, this smothers and kills grasses, leading to a shift to woody vegetation and bare soil, releasing carbon. Ugh. What to do.
Well, next we thought to use fire. Fire also leaves the soil bare, releasing carbon, but worse than that, burning one hectare of grassland gives off more, and more damaging, pollutants than 6,000 cars. Currently, in Africa, we are burning more than one billion hectares of grasslands a year. Almost nobody is talking about this. This is probably because it does remove the dead material and it allows the plants to regrow.
Perhaps we really ought to consider that math for a moment. Assuming an outrageously high 1.5 cars for every person on the planet, this world has ~10.5 billion cars in play polluting every day. In Africa they are burning grassland equivalent to 6,000 billion cars or the equivalent of every man woman and child driving ( simultaneously ) 857 cars daily.
I suggest to you that your purchase of a Prius is not going to make this problem go away. It is a problem born of the agricultural revolution and it is one that can be remedied (at least partially if not entirely ) by organized and planned grazing by livestock. In a nutshell, we need to consume more bacon and beef.
Allan Savory and his team are already doing so on about 15 million hectares on five continents. Quick calculations show that we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years. ( Keep in mind that ALL plant and animal life here on earth is primarily made up of carbon ) Further, if we just do that on about half the world’s known grasslands we can take carbon emissions back to pre-industrial levels, while simultaneously feeding people.
Bacon and Beef. It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on your low carbon emissions diet. 
 Peter L. Bernstein. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (Kindle Locations 247-255). Kindle Edition.
 And before you get too up in arms about methane levels from livestock, please read this paper on Methane Production from Cattle.
As I mentioned in my last post, the interwebs are a fantastic asset to spreading information. Information, after all, wants to be free to spread itself in the wild. One of the downsides of this fantastically efficient network of ours is the spread of information that is alarmist or even false.
Consider this article that a very concerned friend sent me the other day: The Radiation Warnings You Won’t Get from the Mainstream Propaganda Machine
Aside from the fact that it is poorly researched muckraking, with little to no sourcing of information, it is totally designed to play on our lack of scientific understanding.
Samples of milk taken across the United States have shown radiation at levels 2000 percent higher than EPA maximums. The reason that milk is so significant is that it it representative of the entire food supply. According to an article published on Natural News, “Cows consume grass and are exposed to the same elements as food crops and water supplies. In other words, when cows’ milk starts testing positive for high levels of radioactive elements, this is indicative of radioactive contamination of the entire food supply.”
Follow the article to Natural News and they begin reporting things like “Fukushima radiation taints US milk supplies at levels 2000 percent higher than EPA maximums” They source their data, which is a good thing. The first problem is more that the data is now over a year old. The second problem is that most people don’t really understand radiation contamination levels in any meaningful way.
Ask yourself, do you know what pCi/L means? More than likely you had no idea it stands for picocuries per liter. Even if you did happen to know that definition, which I will confess I did not remember it from my last Physics class at Berkeley more than 20 years ago, you almost positively had no idea that it stands for one trillionth of a curie.
The basis for the curie is the radioactivity of one gram of radium. Radium decays at a rate of about 2.2 trillion disintegrations (2.2×1012) per minute. A picocurie is one trillionth of a curie. Thus, a picocurie (abbreviated as pCi) represents 2.2 disintegrations per minute. To put the relative size of one trillionth into perspective, consider that if the Earth were reduced to one trillionth of its diameter, the “picoEarth” would be smaller in diameter than a speck of dust. In fact, it would be six times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.
Now the interesting thing about stating the risk in terms of picocuries is that you cannot convert that to sieverts. This is because pCi (picocuries) and Sv (sieverts) are not compatible. We use sieverts to quantitatively evaluate the biological effects of ionizing radiation as opposed to just the absorbed dose of radiation energy, which is measured in grays.
|unit||dimensions||common physical quantity|
|Sv (sieverts)||[length]^2/[time]^2||equivalent dose of ionizing radiation|
The reason you cannot compare the two has to do with the time component to sieverts that is used to establish the risk of harm from exposure to radiation. By comparison, picocuries only tell us an amount of radiation at period time-1 and cannot tell us anything about the biological impact of exposure over time.
Where does this leave us? Well, at least one of the reasons why radiation is so scary for most people is that it is invisible (and of course potentially deadly). This invisible “threat” can be as terrible as the fallout from Fukushima ( 40 mili-sieverts ) or as harmless as eating a banana ( 0.1 micro-sieverts ). In fact, when I go to the dentist’s office I refuse to wear a lead vest when getting dental x-rays. This usually scares the shit out of the oral hygienists. Silly right? The average dental x-ray is 5 micro-sieverts and my flights from Boston to San Francisco ( one way ) which I make 8 to 10 times a year are exposing me to 40 micro-sieverts EACH time I fly. Perhaps I should get Virgin America to give me a lead suit to wear!
( See the wonderful chart at XKCD for a better understanding of Radiation dosages ).
The bottom line is that radiation may be invisible, but it is not magic. With an application of the right medium and an understanding of the physics involved, we can (indirectly) see radiation happening in real-time ( see cloud chamber video below ). Perhaps if we expand our understanding of radiation we will be less afraid and less susceptible to the fear mongering and muckraking of the interwebs.