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Planet Earth Under Threat

wet in wicken

  • Gabrielle Walker
  • 4 Jun 06, 10:01 PM

Hello fellow bloggers,

Well, as Julian told you, we made it to Wicken Fen and in spite of his assurances ended up getting more than a little damp. Fortunately, the rain didn’t come until after the birds had provided us with a splendid dawn chorus. I’ve heard cuckoos before, but never in such numbers, sparring over the airwaves about who has the best patch. It was awesome, well worth getting up at 4am for.

Cuckoos are some of the many migrant birds that Wicken houses, and it was fascinating to hear about how they and their fellow long-distance travellers might be affected by climatic shifts in different parts of their travels.

Speaking of long-distance travels, some of you have mentioned that we on the PEuT team seem to be planning to use up a fair amount of jet fuel to make this series, and have said that this isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. You’re right of course. But first of all, I don’t think you should assume anything about my (or the series’) “agenda”. Having spent more than a decade researching and writing about climate change I have now concluded, along with most of the world’s climate scientists, that global warming is upon us, that some changes are inevitable, and others are probably still avoidable if we decide to take certain steps. I also believe that there will be winners and losers from both the inevitable change, and the possible further changes that might follow.



Part of the reason for this series is to investigate some of the winners and losers. We learned at Wicken, for instance, that rising sea level might turn some of the coastal wetlands of the UK into salt marshes. Well ok, wetlands are a rich and varied ecosystem, but salt marshes aren’t too shabby. And even if the biodiversity is reduced, what’s so great about biodiversity? Life on Earth was no bigger than a pinhead for billions of years, with only a handful of different species of microbes to write about.

It was in this context that I asked Bill Adams about why he was worried about disappearing species, and I must admit that his answer was a good one. Julian’s already told you what he said: “The first rule of intelligent meddling is to keep all the pieces”. I like the image this conjures up of humanity putting all the bits of an engine on the table, letting the carburettor fall off onto the floor and wondering why the rest doesn’t work any more when it’s reassembled.

There’s nothing inherently special about biodiversity as far as the Earth’s concerned but we do have a rather subtle, intricate and interesting system now, and one that we humans have learned to rely on. Back to my previous comments that the Earth doesn’t care what we do to it, but we humans might want to stop and think about why we care. I’m still in the process of doing this. I’ve started to think that excessive carbon emissions might be a bad idea, and that gives me pause when it comes to my occasional long flights. So far, I’m balancing this against the point that my journeys are to investigate the issues, and put forward the conclusions to a wider audience.

While we’re on the subject of your comments, they’re great, please do keep them coming. By the way, I wanted to respond to one specific comment. I mentioned that certain Antarctic animals are threatened by the loss of sea ice and one well-read blogger pointed out a paper suggesting that sea ice around Antarctica has actually been increasing over recent years. Yes, Jay Zwally (who is an excellent scientist) does seem to show that. (Zwally, H.J., Comiso, J.C., Parkinson, C.L. Cavalieri, D.J. and Gloersen, P. (2002). "Variability of Antarctic sea ice 1979-1998". Journal of Geophysical Research 107: 10.1029/2000). But that paper is also a testament to how dangerous it can be to draw conclusions from short time series, in a system that has so much natural variability. It’s not Jay’s fault—the satellites simply haven’t been around for very long. But do check out a very clever paper by Australian researchers that uses clues from ice core to try to extend the satellite record backwards in time. They find that if you take the long view, sea ice does indeed seem to have decreases around Antarctica over the past 50 years. (Ref: M. A. J. Curran et al., Science vol 302 no 5648, pp 1203-1206, 14 November 2003)

As for the future, nobody knows what will happen next. Most general circulation models predict that Antarctic sea ice will continue to disappear as the earth warms, though they predict it will disappear even more quickly in the ultra-sensitive Arctic. Even if the models are wrong, increases in sea ice would be almost as bad for my little feathered friend. A couple of years ago, a massive iceberg rammed itself into one end of the bay near McMurdo station on Ross island. This meant that the summer sea ice stretched much farther than usual, and the little Adelie penguins had to march 50 kilometres to the ice edge to find their food. They did it with dogged determination, but most of their chicks that year died.

Happy blogging!


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Great article.

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  • 2.
  • At 11:40 AM on 05 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

The "system" now is no more subtle, intricate and interesting than it was at any time in the past or than it will be any time in the future. The only difference is that the dominant species in the system is aware that there is a system and can understand this intricacy.

I don't see that it particularly matters to any great extent which species become extinct and which new ones evolve to exploit the changing circumstances.

Suppose our cute little Adelies become extinct. This will happen because they can no longer exploit the ecological niche they have evolved to exploit, because that niche no longer exists or won't support them in sufficient numbers. Why should Adelies be more worthy than a species which currently struggles but which might thrive in the changing environment that cannot support Adelies?

This question is essentially: why should the normal evolutionary process that has been working for some 3.5 billion years be stopped because it will at some point extinguish species we think are cute?

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Gabrielle,

Greetings and thanks for your thoughts.

You write, "There’s nothing inherently special about biodiversity as far as the Earth’s concerned but we do have a rather subtle, intricate and interesting system now, and one that we humans have learned to rely on. Back to my previous comments that the Earth doesn’t care what we do to it, but we humans might want to stop and think about why we care."

Biodiversity is the keystone to system resiliency, and we humans would indeed, do well to care for that very reason. We depend totally upon a system robust enough to survive changes.

A new study, the first with such a long study period, has been published in Nature:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/06/060601214628.htm

"Ecosystems containing many different plant species are not only more
productive, they are better able to withstand and recover from
climate extremes, pests and disease over long periods, according to a
new study. It is the first experiment to gather enough data -- over a
sufficient time and in a controlled environment -- to confirm a
50-year scientific debate about whether biodiversity stabilizes
ecosystems.

The findings, ...are the result of 12 years of experiments conducted by senior ecologists from several universities...

"This study clearly demonstrates that stability of a plant community
through time increases as species richness goes up,"

And finally, your 'occasional long journeys' are proportionally less damaging than hopping on planes for short journeys...

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 4.
  • At 02:47 PM on 05 Jun 2006,
  • Max Randor wrote:

Using oxfam unwrapped you can buy 25 trees in an underdeveloped country for £8 - which should offset your trips quite quickly - though more trees would be preferable. This is the best deal that I have seen. and at the same time it is great for the country you do it in.

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With regard to biodiversity, we'd do well not to forget that we are already in the middle of a mass extinction episode, the largest since the dinosaurs got the chop:

http://www.well.com/%7Edavidu/extinction.html

But never mind, humans are so clever we don't need any other creatures for our airconditioned, hermetically sealed sci/tech 'new worlds'....now where did I put that Chilton's manual....
:-)
ed

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  • 6.
  • At 06:43 PM on 05 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

I'm puzzled as to how a professor of philosophy and religion is qualified to opine definitively on the supposed mass extinction facing the Earth's current crop of species. Oh, wait - he teaches at an institute which says that mysticism is a necessary adjunct to science in trying to understand the universe.

Wrong. We will NOT determine the true nature and scope of the threat, if any, and nor will we be able to come up with any workable plans to deal with it, if we persist in a mystic view of things. We will only be able to do these things through detailed, thorough, rational scientific enquiry and good engineering knowledge. Mysticism has no part in it, unless of course you want failure. I suspect quite a few environmentalists do actually want humanity to fail.

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Euan,

"I'm puzzled as to how a professor of philosophy and religion is qualified to opine definitively on the supposed mass extinction facing the Earth's current crop of species....."

Your dismissal of Professor Ulansey's remarkable collation of references is typical. A cursory examination reveals papers from some of the most eminent scientists from universities all over the world. You may recall I suggested you and others read E O Wilson's 'Consilience', with which Mr Berry's 'Life is a 'Miracle' contests? Well, from Mr Wilson via Prof Ulansey: (you'll love the first half!)

"Science and the political process can be adapted to manage the nonliving, physical environment. The human hand is now upon the physical homeostat. ..... The human hand, however, is not upon the biological homeostat. There is no way in sight to micromanage the natural ecosystems and the millions of species they contain. That feat might be accomplished by generations to come, but then it will be too late for the ecosystems and perhaps for us...."
http://www.well.com/user/davidu/suicidal.html
&
"What's at stake in the 21st century, Edward O. Wilson argues in "The Future of Life," is nothing less than the integrity of the planet and the magnificence of life itself. At current rates, half of the Earth's plant and animal species will cease to exist by the end of the century, forever impoverishing the human experience, materially and spiritually."
http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0117/p15s01-bogn.html

And, from Nature, one of the most respected scientific journals:

"Human alteration of the global environment has triggered the sixth major extinction event in the history of life and caused widespread changes in the global distribution of organisms. These changes in biodiversity alter ecosystem processes and change the resilience of ecosystems to environmental change. This has profound consequences for services that humans derive from ecosystems."
http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nature/journal/v405/n6783/full/405234a0_fs.html

If you keep your blinkers on, you'll remain 'puzzled'. I suspect Prof Ulansey is more 'qualified to opine' than yourself, though if you wish to reveal your qualifications, please do so.

Meanwhile,
Vaya con Gaia
ed

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Euan,

Spoken like a true fundamentalist - 'my way is the only way, and all others are doomed to perdition'
Vaya con Gaia
ed
P.S. failure is indeed likely, especially if we pursue an exclusively materialist paradigm, but not desired by anyone with a heart.

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  • 9.
  • At 01:09 PM on 06 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Again, Ed, it is not fundamentalism, it is merely an appreciation of how things really work as opposed to how one might like them to work.

I would challenge you - or anyone else - to explain why a worldview grounded at least in part in mysticism and metaphysical speculation is in any way more likely to produce an accurate understanding of the world and its problems than is a rational analysis based on testable and falsifiable hypotheses.

I'd really like you to explain why a mystical view produces more accurate results. It is not a rhetorical question.

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Fellow bloggers,

I again commend the derided professor's list, which contains articles from many prominent scientists and academics.

Also, on biodiversity, from Aldo Leopold ('keep the pieces'):
"One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples."

"Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 percent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity they are entitled to continuance."
--Aldo Leopold http://www.tipiglen.dircon.co.uk/landethic.html

I would remind fellow bloggers that it is a fallacy to imagine The Economy can contain The Environment, which by definition will contain and limit any Economy, whether devised by humans or machines, or 'naturally'

xx
ed

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  • 11.
  • At 01:33 PM on 06 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

I'm not sure anyone is actually suggesting that only for-profit conservation should be encouraged, so I fail to grasp the significance of this stuff about the economy being unable to contain the environment, or about only a tiny fraction of species having a direct economic value.

In any case, it is at best misleading. Most species have no direct economic value, but a very small number of species have enormous value - for example, maize, wheat and rice together produce 2 billion tonnes of food each year and represent nearly half the calorific intake of all humanity, which is by any measure economically vital. By extension, the species which support and predate upon these three are also of enormous economic importance.

The economy may not contain the environment, but it does not need to - it only needs to contain that part of the environment which is necessary for human survival.

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Some biodiversity:
http://www.bella.dircon.co.uk/lichen.jpg

Now what's the value of that, except as an indicator of air quality?
Vaya con Gaia
ed

P.S. what happened to my post from Aldo Leopold? Advise us, please if there's a limit on quotation to make a point.
xx
ed

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"I'm not sure anyone is actually suggesting that only for-profit conservation should be encouraged,....

"The economy may not contain the environment, but it does not need to - it only needs to contain that part of the environment which is necessary for human survival."

Spot the contradiction
xx
ed

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  • 14.
  • At 03:36 PM on 06 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Where is the contradiction? If it comes right down to it, the economy does not need to be a profit-seeking system.

One could, for example, produce nuclear-generated electricity and heat energy on a zero-profit basis and use this to sustain an environment sufficient for humanity to exist, thus not only encompassing the necessary part of the environment within the economy but not even doing it for a profit.

Now, where's your explanation of how a mystic interpretation of the world is more accurate than a rational one? Or are you going to continually sidestep that question like you did with the earlier one about identifying a mechanism of life that isn't based in chemistry?

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  • 15.
  • At 04:02 PM on 06 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

The photograph of lichen linked to by Ed is interesting when coupled with the denial that such life has much economic value.

In fact, lichens are not without value since in the past some of the chemicals they produce have been used commercially as dyes and simple antibiotics. Use as an indicator of air quality is also economically valuable since it costs nothing to maintain such pollution detectors and they can help to avoid the economic cost of dealing with pollution.

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Euan,
Sadly, you insist in putting words in my mouth. I said MORE than chemistry, and I said NOT EXCLUSIVELY materialistic.

On both matters you appear to exhibit exclusivity: "there is nothing more than the material", and "it is wholly chemistry and physics."

I disagree.
Vaya con Gaia

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  • 17.
  • At 04:59 PM on 06 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

I know you said more than chemistry, and what I'm asking you is WHAT IS IT that is more than chemistry, what mechanism contains it, how do you prove it's more than chemistry.

I also know you said not exclusively materialistic, and again what I am asking is WHAT IS IT that is more than materialistic and why is this more accurate than a materialistic view.

I know you disagree, but the point is that you've made specific assertions which strike at the heart of the only process we know which will actually get useful answers to these problems and you've been called on these assertions.

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Show me how you make life using only chemistry and physics. Demonstrate.

btw, as to lichens, you wouldn't know irony if it hit you with a hammer. Those lovely lichens are in my garden

This conversation is over.
xx
ed

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  • 19.
  • At 09:27 AM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

I have already explained the most probable way of getting life using merely chemistry and physics. These mechanisms are well known and not seriously challenged by the vast majority of people working in the field. What you are consistently sidestepping is explaining why there needs to be anything else other than physics and chemistry, what that other thing may be and how we can know it is there.

Saying "this conversation is over" is a somewhat petulant response and indicates to me only that you cannot actually answer the questions put to you. If you can, please do so. If you can't, have the grace to admit you're merely speculating and don't know the answer.

And perhaps you could explain the apparent irony of having lichen in your garden. I've got some in mine, too. So what? Where's the irony in this?

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Euan,

"I have already explained the most probable way of getting life using merely chemistry and physics. These mechanisms are well known and not seriously challenged by the vast majority of people working in the field."

Including Dr Frankenstein, I presume. Despite all these 'well understood' 'mechanisms', nobody has done it.

We differ in that you're convinced that materialist scientific reductionism is capable of understanding the universe, and I'm not. That's all the difference, with the possible exception of maturity.

It's pointless asking me to answer questions I have already said are unanswerable. You're the one who believes there are answers, and that they lie entirely within the grasp of Science.

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 21.
  • At 10:18 AM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Ed, you're now trying to turn your question into a different one - not "how does life work" but "how can *WE NOW* create life in the lab." In any case, I have already answered that as far as I know this has not been done but that there is, equally as far as I know, no fundamental reason why it couldn't be done.

Clearly you don't agree, based on your assumption that life has something non-materialistic about it which would render such artificial creation impossible. Fair enough, but as I keep asking you and as you keep evading, what IS that something?

However, you now say that the question is unanswerable. In that case, any postulate that there is something non-materialistic about life is itself pointless because, if you think it is unanswerable, you would not accept any answer that anyone could give. You are simply making an unfounded assertion and denying in advance any response to it, presumably expecting that your position should be accepted as valid even though you reach it on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and clearly will not accept any rational analysis of the question. This is a religious approach to the question, relying on the supernatural (or mystical, or whatever you want to call it) to explain things you don't understand, the "God of the gaps" philosophy. Or perhaps the "Gaia of the gaps" idea?

At any rate, such positions based on unfounded metaphysical speculation are not taken seriously and are not useful in understanding the world or its problems.

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  • 22.
  • At 11:07 AM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

On the subject of mass extinctions, I'd like to know why it is that anything humanity does in this respect, whether accidental or intentional, is uniquely awful.

Why is it so much worse than the Permian extinction, which eliminated 95% of all species on the planet? Or than the Cretaceous extinction, which elminated all the dominant land and marines animal species and a great many plants? And why is it that, mirabile dictu, life persists thereafter and new forms evolve to exploit the new circumstances and thus we have again a flourishing of diversity? So why are we told that we are putting the planet under threat?

I read somewhere recently that we have tigers because we don't have tyrannosaurs. So if we don't have tigers, we will in due course have some other large predator which will evolve from a current smaller predator to exploit the ecological niche. What is the problem with this? No species lasts forever in any case, so even if we did not exist tigers would in due course reach extinction and would be replaced with another species. So would Adelie penguins, particularly given that large factors such as solar output are major contributors to global warming and about which we can do nothing. It appears that the planet Mars is also warming for this reason, and it's hard to blame mankind for that. What is wrong with this?

Is the environmentalist idea of preserving the current situation not the grave intervention? Are we not trying merely to stop the natural evolutionary process? Would it not simply create even bigger problems? Are we not trying to solve a problem that isn't of our making and which is far, far bigger than we can control because our contributory factors are insignificant?

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"Are we not trying to solve a problem that isn't of our making and which is far, far bigger than we can control because our contributory factors are insignificant?"

A rare case of modesty on behalf of Homo Scientificus, coupled with a bit of denial of responsibility. One would think some as yet undemonstrated mystical force is responsible, but of course not. Certainly, nothing exists which humans cannot comprehend and control.

xx
ed

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  • 24.
  • At 12:58 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Ed, one of the biggest indicators that man is not responsible for global warming is that Mars is ALSO warming, and that it appears in BOTH cases that this is due to fluctuations in the solar cycle. Certainly it is unlikely that man has had much to do with the climate of Mars. These same fluctuations in the solar cycle, together with irregularities in planetary orbits - neither of which man can do the slightest things about - are the same things that hvae caused the numerous previous ice ages and hot periods.

Do recall that in the Cretaceous there were no polar ice caps on Earth, the sea level was some 200 to 300m higher than at present and yet there was a vast diversity of abundant life.

It's not denying responsibility, it's recognising that really it is not because of us that the climate is warming, just as it has warmed (much more) and cooled in the past, long before man came along.

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  • 25.
  • At 12:59 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

I should add that there is nothing in the slightest bit mystical about orbital mechanics or fluctuations in solar output.

It's simply physics. No mysticism involved.

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  • 26.
  • At 01:10 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Extending from my earlier comment on the uniqueness of man's culpability for species extinction, perhaps it could be explained why there is apparently nothing wrong with global warming when it happens perfectly naturally, but it's uniquely awful if at the same time man happens to be driving around in oil-fuelled trucks.

In the Cretaceous, no ice caps at all, seas 200m deeper than now, 12 times the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, 50% more oxygen in the atmosphere and an average global temperature some 20 degrees higher than today. And yet, a wondrous abundance of life.

What exactly is the problem? Specifically why is global warming today a horrible thing, but in the past it was fine?

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"Specifically why is global warming today a horrible thing, but in the past it was fine?"

Because it threatens US! The plant kingdom can't wait. Ask Dr Don.
Vaya con Gaia, but hang onto your hat.
ed

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  • 28.
  • At 01:26 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

It doesn't threaten us per se. It threatens our current way of life, but not the species as a whole. Human lifestyles have changed many times in the past to reflect changing circumstances and environment, and so it will change again when necessary.

Now, why cannot the plant kingdom wait? If it gets generally warmer, some species suited to colder weather will die. Others more suited to warmer weather will thrive. Yet others will adapt. This is called evolution and it has been happening for millions of years. Why do you think it will suddenly stop happening?

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"It doesn't threaten us per se. It threatens our current way of life, but not the species as a whole."

So it's certain we aren't among the possible half of all species expected to become extinct in the present convulsion, which of course, has nothing to do with us?

Such certainty, such confidence, such faith.

xx
ed

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  • 30.
  • At 03:32 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

I know comments are moderated and have to be read before appearing on the page, but why are they appearing, then disappearing, and finally re-appearing?

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  • 31.
  • At 03:49 PM on 07 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

The notion that half of all currently existing species are headed for imminent extinction is, at best, a guess by professionals, and at worst alarmist scare-mongering by those with an altogether separate agenda. Estimates on this matter vary enormously.

Even if it turns out to be true, there is no particular reason why man has to be one of these species. Alone among the species on the planet, man can be aware of his surroundings, note changes in them, plan to deal with the changes and construct technologies to enable mitigation.

Man needs food, but is not tied to specific species for provision of that food. There are alternatives, and in a markedly different climate we would at a minimum have to make use of alternatives in some cases. We use lots of wheat, maize and rice, but we will not die if they are not available - we can use other grains which may currently be uneconomic or ill-suited to many climates, but which may become economical and suited in changed circumstances. Similarly, we need water but are not dependent on natural sources of fresh water - we can desalinate seawater, we can filter and treat dirty water, and so on.

Again, if the world warms enough it is true that sea levels will rise, principally by thermal expansion of the oceans and not by the addition of melted ice. This will mean many areas currently inhabited will be underwater. It also means that many areas currently uninhabited due to cold or remoteness will become viable. Even then, it isn't that simple since failure of the thermohaline circulation in the north Atlantic may mean western Europe gets much colder and drier, becomes more like eastern Europe. This would increase ice growth and, incidentally, increase the salinity of the oceans, perhaps restarting the circulation naturally.

There are always alternatives. Things will change, that's all. We have the ability to cope with this change, just as we have coped with earlier changes and different climates in the past - it was warmer in Roman times than today, notably colder in the Middle Ages, and so on.

There is reason to be confident.

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"In the Cretaceous, no ice caps at all, seas 200m deeper than now, 12 times the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, 50% more oxygen in the atmosphere and an average global temperature some 20 degrees higher than today. And yet, a wondrous abundance of life."

And we have a good idea how that turned out:
"High ambient oxygen and the K/T boundary extinctions"

"65 million years ago (MyBP) mass disappearances of some 70% of all biotic species, delineated the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K/T) boundary"
http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/52/357/801

No threat to the human species, eh?
Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 33.
  • At 08:56 AM on 08 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Ed, as I have said several times before, humanity is not powerless in the face of environmental change. We, unlike the 70% of species eliminated at the end of the Cretaceous, can take steps to mitigate any threat to us. That's really the whole point of this attempt to do something about global warming, isn't it?

Global warming is a threat to several species, no doubt. Just as global warming in the past also was, just as cooling was, and just as both will be again. But we do not need to disappear because we are not helpless in the face of the environment.

Furthermore, the fact that a large part of global warming strongly appears to be nothing to do with man does somewhat suggest that efforts to cut carbon emissions and the various other self-denying plans simply won't work and are pointless. They could even be counter-productive, since if we do that and only that and global warming continues because we're tackling something that basically isn't the cause, then we won't be developing the tools needed to cope with its effects and then - but only then - we'd really suffer.

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