Sunday, August 20, 2017

Small Minds and Large Problems

“People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.” – Tyrion Lannister of Westeros

Sage words from a fictional character in reaction to an existential threat on a fantasy world.

 “The benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched. Our climate is too complex and the consequences of misguided policies too harsh to discount the positive effects of carbon enrichment . . . as the Earth warms, we are seeing beneficial changes to the earth’s geography. For instance, Arctic sea ice is decreasing. This development will create new commercial shipping lanes that provide faster, more convenient, and less costly routes between ports in Asia, Europe, and eastern North America.”

“A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth. This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food. Studies indicate that crops would utilize water more efficiently, requiring less water. And colder areas along the farm belt will experience longer growing seasons.”  - Lamar Smith, Congressman of Texas

Lame words from a real politician in reaction to an existential threat closer to home.

Rep. Smith is one of the most vocal critics of modern climate science in Congress. He recently came to these “conclusions” after visiting the Arctic last March and talking extensively with climate scientists about their research and witnessing first hand glacial retreat in Greenland.

Wow! Who would have thought that “enriching” the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere to levels not seen in 3 million years would be so wonderful for humanity? It’s good news all around. Longer growing seasons in North Dakota and Maine! New shipping lanes through the Arctic!

Of course, if you live in areas close to sea level, you might be a tad less sanguine about the prospects of a CO2 “enriched” atmosphere as residents of the US eastern seaboard are finding out. If you are a farmer or rancher south of the Mason Dixon line, you’d be hard pressed to see the benefits of a warming world as well.

A new study published in the journal Science estimates that the Deep South and Texas in particular will be more heavily and negatively impacted as the climate warms than many other regions of the US. Rep. Smith’s own district is expected to see annual losses in gross domestic product exceeding 20% per year by the 2080s.

Increased CO2 does help plants grow, but other nutrients a plant needs, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace metals, will not increase in lock step, so the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Plants produce less protein per unit volume and thus become less nutritious. As temperature increases more frequent droughts and intense storms will also not make agriculture any easier.

Yes, the Arctic will be navigable for some portion of the year as the region warms, but even a warm Arctic will still be subject to the intense storms only found in that region of the world, which is a long way from any emergency services in case a ship founders. Even now, cruise ships plying the fabled Northwest Passage have to be accompanied an emergency support ship.

Smith’s opponent in next year’s election, Joe Kosper, told the Huffington Post that Smith’s logic is equivalent to being in a flood and rejoicing at all the new fresh water or being in a burning house and thinking that you don’t have to worry about your heating bills.

If you squint really hard here, you can find some good news. After years of relentless and excoriating attacks on climate scientists as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Congressman Smith has finally admitted that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm up.

Perhaps the honorable Congressman has entered the bargaining stage of grief, preceded by denial and anger, which he has for years expressed towards climate scientists. One may assume he will progress to depression and acceptance. Of course the $700,000 in donations he has received from the oil and gas industry since 1986 will presumably assuage his delicate psyche.

All kidding aside, the climate change problems we are facing are that large, and small-minded men such as Congressman Smith have shown themselves to be uniquely ill-equipped to deal with an issue which is becoming more apparent with each new piece of data collected by researchers at outposts near and far around the world.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley (also a real person)