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Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 7) Air: Climate Change
For Lynn Margulis, the somewhat acerbic eminent biologist whom Mann used to run into in their home town of Amherst, Mass., anthropogenic global warming was "sad," but in the long history of life on earth, hardly catastrophic. The advent of oxygen-emitting cyanobacteria on the planet, "now that was a catastrophe," she said, wiping out most other existing creatures. Margulis did allow that in causing the earth to warm, humans were "getting into the biological big leagues--we were tiptoeing into the terrain of bacteria, algae, and other truly important creatures." Margulis is fatalistic about the future trajectory of our species regarding putting more carbon into the air. It's our particular mandate to do so, she said, just as the mandate of cyanobacteria was to emit oxygen. I suppose that makes us Homo carbo.
I will leave to Robert, if he's interested, a summary of the investigations into the impact of carbon dioxide on our climate. It was at first held as ridiculous that CO2, composing such a small part of the atmosphere, would ever influence the temperature of the entire planet; but eventually the action of CO2 in the atmosphere became understood as uniquely crucial in regulating temperature, even at only a few hundred parts per million. It is that unique, accidental quality that brings us to our current huge dilemma; otherwise, we'd be able to joyfully send up all the fossil residues we cared to with an untroubled conscience.
As for the huge dilemma, Mann is not out to offer us hope to escape it. He sticks to his reporter's role. The tussle between Wizard and Prophet carries over into climate from the other fronts Mann has discussed, much as anyone might expect. I've always thought that he does pin down a true divide among the intellectual elite of science and technology. I'm not sure, though, how much the divide explains inaction to prevent the problem from overwhelming us. In the middle, there is simply the mass of leaders who don't lean to one side or the other, because dramatic action of either Wizard or Prophet variety is what they want to avoid. The populace is pretty much of the same mind. As Mann again tells us, climate change isn't the type of problem we're ideally suited to confront, being too diffuse, vague, uncertain, and abstract, and still too futuristic, to trigger our defenses. A lovely day in Virginia can easily put us into an "it's all good" emotional state.
Wizards contend that what prophets typically propose--from behavior changes to efficiency gains to universal solar and wind--simply won't be sufficient to meet either basic human needs or goals for carbon reduction. Prophets argue passionately that Wizard proposals such as geoengineering will have unforeseen, possibly disastrous consequences and will complete our desacralizing of nature. Mann includes a Prophet-promoted form of geoengineering, though--planting billions of trees in deserts. Wizards counter that it can have unforeseen consequences.
What surprised me about geoengineering was its feasibility. I should apologize to Robert for doubting him on this. The practical and financial barriers seem as nothing compared to those of fully switching to renewable energy (see p. 345). In fact, the relative ease of geoengineering makes it, in Mann's view, a possible hazard. Rogue nations and even super-rich individuals could manage it. Politically, it's hard to see a way forward for geoengineering. Two nations may have different goals for climate beyond that of reducing temperature worldwide. Mann's example is China, which may want to reduce its drought, and India, wanting relief from monsoons. Either might regard its neighbor's climate-engineering as an act of war and launch nuclear missiles. Contemplating the U.N. ever getting together on a proposal, one can't be very hopeful.
Mann speculates that, in a couple decades when we're face-to-face with more severe consequences, the world could turn to geoengineering to give us time to complete the transition away from fossil fuels, viewing geoengineering as a stopgap.
The elephant in the room appears to be nuclear power. Mann presents the expense of plants as probably a bigger problem than the waste. In terms of volume, the waste is not great, relative to fossil fuels. The very hazardous waste so far produced by the world's 400+ nukes would cover a football field (American, presumably) 80 feet deep. But it's for good reason that Prophets scream at the thought of creating even more. I was expecting Mann to say something about nuclear fusion coming to the rescue, but he doesn't. MIT scientists say we could be 15 years away.
Last edited by DWill on Mon Apr 13, 2020 9:54 am, edited 1 time in total.