Friday, October 10, 2008

Forest/climate theory revisions

The proposed solution to the "missing carbon" problem in the study of terrestrial carbon flux: that soils and growing plants sequester more carbon than previously thought, hasn't penetrated to the minds of negotiators of offset treaties, at least according to this Reuter's piece. Were forest offsets to work and work well, this would be win-win for conservation and climate, and if true, probably good news for the planet as a whole, although how forest offsets are accounted for and certified remains a problem. But as the missing carbon story shows, there is a good deal of uncertainty.

Caveat emptor: I haven't had chance to go back and check the recent primary literature to see how accurately the newsies have got the story. Their track record is so poor on reporting climate stories accurately. Even Reuters failed to connect the new initiatives to "missing carbon" theory.

If true, though, it underscores something I've been saying for a while about how you study climate for policy purposes. There's considerable danger for the planet in long-term fixed notions of what the correct policy should be. As if the Kyoto debacle wasn't sufficient bad press. Dozens of similar false starts await us, if we can't train a new generation of policy people who have really good science comprehension and science study skills, so they keep up, year after year, after year, with the material. You can't study climate just once. You have to keep studying it. And your science has to be very good, especially your analytical, synthetic and quantitative skills.

There's no good way to a climate fix through the arts and humanities. They have an important role to play. But this is a job for science majors. Actually, the best proof of this is the routinely bad journalism. But I've also seen some pretty huge science bloomers made by so called climate activists, most of whom just liked the look of what probably seemed to them to be a new liberal political bandwagon called climate, a bandwagon they wanted to smash into their pet problem: economic globalization.

Complex systems exhibit particularity. There can be, if you know what you're doing, certain levers and buttons whose operation requires very little cost, but whose consequences (good or bad) are disproportionately large. It pays to know which buttons and levers work which way, and to press the right ones. Pressing the wrong ones can be just embarrassing. Or it can ruin people's lives or kill them. In climate science there are some buttons we have figured out, and some we know very little about. Our knowledge of the operations of the complex system we call climate is far from perfect.

But most people are very bad at complexity. They want things to be easy. Part of this is psychology. Easy answers give false hope to folks whose reserves of character are shallow. Complexity is also quantitative, and most people suck at math. Ecology, contrary to the opinion of many greenies, is a mathematical science whose main work is the quantification of matter and energy flows between plant and animal communities in complex ecosystems. Ecological models are complex equations whose terms are often exponential and so may have surprising outcomes. So, for that matter are climate models. Really really huge, complex equations. What most green activists think of as ecology is actually natural history, some nice notions of biology without any specificity to the terms of the relationship and no math at all, let alone a quantifiable model. Most so-called green activists fail right off the bat to even begin to study real quantitative ecology, let alone apply it to political and economic reasoning. Few, in fact, ever study the economics they despise so much sufficiently to comprehend its own inherent flaws of quantitative reasoning.

This failure to comprehend complexity and quantification of complexity in general would probably include many if not most of our politicians. Witness the current meltdown in the complex system known as global finance.

A strange parallel.

The early Bush administration had some easy answers: Neo-liberal economic theory. Pure Milton Friedman. Deregulate, reduce taxes on the rich, and wait for the dollars to trickle down. Combined with the theory of American exceptionalism they also espoused, the "go-it-alone, we don't need the UN, we don't need those Eurotrash, we don't need your economic theory, we'll make our own history" attitude that was rampant at the time. And look where that got us. Is it possible that all they really wanted were some selfish tax breaks for themselves?

An educated electorate would have seen right through that. Just as we should see through climate bandwagon-ing. We'll never fix the climate if all we really want is to shaft corporations or hug the planet. Isn't it possible that capitalism could actually help reduce carbon emissions? That the dreaded WalMart or Home Depot could soon be selling (even more) energy efficient appliances, insulation, or wind and solar equipment to millions of American homeowners? Might there not be inherent contradictions between the flaws of reasoning in anthropomorphic environmentalism and fixes needed for climate ecology, such as the possible need to abandon some endangered species, too costly, or even impossible to save in the face of climate change?

And where would the bandwagon be parked then?

So, more cautiously, we should reinvestigate this new policy move. We probably should make some good positive moves towards tropical and subtropical forest conservation. And if we do, well, I for one will be glad because it is win-win, a possible victory for climate and biodiversity conservation. Those have certainly been few and far between lately.

But the offset-makers will have to work harder to keep up with the science.

No comments: