and a few subsequent replies to me
My comment on the comments on the comment on the comment on the comment
got longer and longer and I repost it here as a more suitable forum for
Re 34, 35, 37, 39:
Even if one assumes the premise that we are "optimally adapted" to the
present climate (which I think would be difficult to rationally defend),
it does not follow that changes to the climate would result in net costs.
In fact, our adaptation to the current climate (eg in agriculture and
infrastructure, as have been mentioned) is also a matter of economics,
technology and politics, and we can guarantee that these will continue
to change at quite a rate.
Of course we can all agree that a drought in an area that is already
somewhat short of water is a bad thing that will likely cost money,
compared to exactly the same situation without the extra drought.
However, an increase in rainfall in such an area is likely to be
beneficial (so long as it is not excessive and leads to flooding), even
if society is well adapted to the status quo. The opening of the
Northwest Passage is likely to bring significant economic benefits by
reducing transport costs, even though (of course) we are currently
adapted to its impassability. Warmer winters will reduce the winter
death rate in the UK for sure, and this vastly outweighs any plausible
estimate of heatwave deaths, at least for a range of modest warmings,
even before we start to consider any adaptation to the summer heat. We
could of course achieve a similar effect by insulating homes and
reducing poverty, of course, but we are already "optimally adapted", right?
To boldly assert as axiomatic that "change = bad" is, I think, rather
naive and simplistic. All sorts of (social, economic, technological)
changes are inevitable, and the latter two at least have a strong record
of bringing substantial (no, massive) benefits. Would anyone be silly
enough to argue that these changes are bad because we are adapted to the
status quo? While I am sure that some climate changes will increase
pressure on some ecosystems and human societies, it seems to me to be a
rather more nuanced situation than some of the comments above would
indicate. Indeed, if the climate changes are slow and modest enough
compared to the other changes, it might be hard to detect their overall
effect at all (on human health, wealth and happiness, I mean - of course
I'm sure it will be easy to measure environmental parameters that
document the climate change itself, indeed this is already clear
enough). I'm sure UK residents will have noticed the substantial
northward march of maize as a crop in recent years (for cattle fodder).
I'm not sure to what extent this is due to politics (subsidies),
economics, climate change, breeding of better-adapted varieties, or even
just farmers gradually realising that it grows better than they had
thought possible. Even if climate change is the largest factor (which I
doubt, but it's possible), it is not clear who lost out here, other than
perhaps the bugs that prefer to live on kale (or whatever the displaced
Living as I do in a country where houses are expected to last about 30
years, I find it hard to take seriously any worry that they might not be
optimally adapted to the climate 100 years hence (let alone the sea
level a few centuries later). Note also that a change in fuel prices
would change the optimal amount of insulation irrespective of climate
change. Likewise, advances in building materials will likely render
current designs somewhat redundant.
Extropians would assert that "change = good" and that we should
encourage change unless it is proven harmful. Just to be clear on this,
I do not endorse this point of view 100% but the difference in opinion
seems as much philosophical as scientific. I think that understanding
this POV goes a long way to explaining the differences between the
environmentalists and the sceptics (even if it does not excuse the
dishonesty of the denialist wing).
I hope this doesn't sound too much like a septic handwave, expecting
techology to magically save the day. To the extent that climate change
is rapid or substantial (which I will deliberately leave undefined
here!), of course it's a threat that should be taken seriously. It is a
little scary to think about how dominant the human influence can be, and
perhaps a mental model of some hypothetical stasis is a comforting
thought in which to ground our personal philosophies. But it would be a
mistake to let one's comfort zone unduly colour one's perceptions of
reality (or at least, such effects need to be openly considered and one
should be prepared to see them challenged).
I've not noticed the 'onward march of Maize', here in Lancashire.
However in view of the mild weather we've been having it seems
reasonable that this could change the practicalities and economics of
what crops to grow. This year really has been noticeably exceptional
(damned awful I hate hot weather). And when it finally went back to
seasonal norms a few weeks ago it was very noticeable. I couldn't get
away with just a T-shirt when walking to work in the morning.
I have to agree with what you say, although I still think we don't know
enough to blithely continue with what we're doing.
Whilst I accept the models' ability to hindcast gross global average
temperature as being an incredible display that they work. My main
concerns are that the models seem to have some issues with reproduction
of fine scale changes, and the danger of feedbacks that we have not
modelled. What current local variance from projections may signal the
start of deviation from what we expect?
Furthermore, as we've not had the chance to model the process we're
unwittingly (witlessly?) engaging in. And as the forcing changes from
CO2 are so fast compared to our best analogy - glacial/interglacial, I
keep thinking custard! To be precise the counterintuitive way that you
can stir the custard powder/sugar mix: slowly it's a liquid, fast it's
a solid. I undertsand that there are disparate physical process behind
both custard and climate that lead to the observed behaviours. But I
don't like the idea of radidly forcing something as critical as our
Whilst I appreciate and agree with the apparent stance of RealClimate
against all this media hype about 'tipping points'. I just can't shake
the concern that the pace of change is dangerous in a complex highly
connected system like our atmosphere. And at 36% above pre-industrial
CO2, considering the 'transient response lag', although it must be a
blip on top of the overall trend. I still feel disquiet about our
British summer being 2degC above average.
The climate-change impacts folk are busy trying to identify the winners
and losers in the context of projected climate change over the next
Some of this work factors in the resiliency and prospects for
technological development of prospective winners and losers. For
example, the impact of climate change on US agriculture is expected to
be negative, but agricultural technology is so highly developed that we
could end up economic winners (maybe we'll insert a camel gene into
maize so it becomes drought tolerant, or something like that).
Conversely, my recollection is that many of the losers are expected to
be in parts of the world that already are stressed economically and
Nowadays most any nation that wants nuclear weapons can get them within
a few years. For this reason I rate the prospect of climate-induced
political instability in the developing world as a greater concern than
climate change itself.
First page I googled (just now, *not* prior to my previous post):
"Although stable in area throughout the 1980s, the area of forage maize
roughly quadrupled through the 1990s. This large expansion is due to a
combination of factors, including the introduction of new varieties
which are better adapted to UK conditions, perceptions of a warming
climate, recent experience of warmer weather and the introduction in
1993 of an arable payment scheme under the Common Agricultural Policy."
Pretty good guess huh? I think I'll award myself full marks for that!
Lancashire may be a bit too grim for it to have caught on so far - it
was common in Cheshire when I lived there >5 years ago (ok, so I was
actually living on Wirral, which is Merseyside really, but we like to
pretend we are posh).
> And as the forcing changes from
> CO2 are so fast compared to our best analogy - glacial/interglacial,
Note however the Dansgaard-Oeschger events, reckoned to be about 8C
warming in 40 years (on a regional basis - but we live on a regional
basis, as do ecosystems!). Indeed there is a research program (RAPID)
largely predicated on the possibility of this sort of thing (THC
shutdown/rapid cooling is the main focus), but it's believed (by most
rational people) to be very unlikely irrespective of anthropogenic
> I still feel disquiet about our
> British summer being 2degC above average.
Think of all the CO2 savings with people no longer flying south for the
summer :-) Living in Lancashire, I'd have thought you would welcome it
more than most!
When I made the remark that we were optimally adapted to the current
climate, I did not think that I would have to "defend it." We live in a
global free market economy, and Adam Smith's "invisible hand"
ensures that the economy is maximised for the environment in which it
acts. Of course the fit is not perfect. The Amazon jungle has not yet
been felled and cleared, so that is an area where production for human
consumption could be increased. Over-fishing in the North Atlantic
has wiped out the most productive fish species - cod, so in that
case we are also not in a maximal condition, but overall we grow
rice in the areas most suited to it, and corn in areas mot suited to that.
However, your point is that climate change might not result in a net
cost. My point is that there will be a cost. If vines become viable to
grow in Scotland, then there will be the cost of planting them. Of
course the farmer will not do that unless he sees a net saving, over
his current crop. So for min there will be no net cost, otherwise he
would not proceed, But what of the French farmer who now has to
give up his centuries old family vineyard because the climate is now
to hot and dry. That is a big cost that could be avoided if the climate
remained unchanged. Note that in this case there is a net cost,
because the Scot is switching production for marginal gain, but the
Frenchman is going bust.
Of course that scenario depends on the desert regions of the world
expanding. If they do, then there will obviously be a net cost. If we
say that there is a 10% possibility this would happen, then we can
calculate the net cost by multiplying the cost of the deserts expanding
by 10%. This then yields a net cost, and so there will be a net cost
to climate change.
Another way of looking at that is if the desert regions move towards
the poles, then a five degree move north will remove far more land
from agricultural production, than the five degree north movement of
the taiga will release to production, because the circumference of the
polar zones is much smaller than that in the sub-tropics.
As improvements from global warming you quote the opening of
the Northwest Passage. Is the fact that New Yorkers will be able
to get the gasoline for their SUVs from the North Slope of Alaska
for a few cents less really a benefit? But perhaps you were thinking
of the savings in the price of a Sony GameBoy in the UK, when the
shipping costs from Japan will be reduced.
And is it really and improvement if Scots can no longer have
porridge for their breakfasts, and have to eat cornflakes, because
their native land can no longer grow oats :-? The point is that for
every winner from change there is a loser. It is not axiomatic
that the winners will outnumber the losers. Of course, that is true
with technological change, which is driven by benefit, but it is not
necessarily true for climate change which is driven by inanimate
forces. Those forces have no consideration for the good of
mankind, nor do they ever show mercy.
For instance when technological change meant that the British
economy had to switch from coal to oil as the main source of
energy, the government closed the mines, and the miners were
thrown out of work. The net benefit was positive to the British
economy. However, the government ensured that the miners
received large redundancy payments. In this case mercy was
shown. Climate change, unlike Maggie, does not have a human face.
> To boldly assert as axiomatic that "change = bad" is, I think, rather
> naive and simplistic.
> Living as I do in a country where houses are expected to last about 30
> years, I find it hard to take seriously any worry that they might not be
> optimally adapted to the climate 100 years hence (let alone the sea
> level a few centuries later).
Living in an earthquake zone, in "temporary accommodation" is not
typical of most of the world, and really rules out any general conclusions
that you draw from that.
> Extropians would assert that "change = good" ...
Isn't that "rather naive and simplistic"?
> I do not endorse this point of view 100% but the difference in opinion
> seems as much philosophical as scientific. I think that understanding
> this POV goes a long way to explaining the differences between the
> environmentalists and the sceptics (even if it does not excuse the
> dishonesty of the denialist wing).
> I hope this doesn't sound too much like a septic handwave, expecting
> technology to magically save the day.
I am afraid it does, and only goes to confirm my suspicions of your sceptic
We do in fact differ on a philosophical POV. For me, Extropism is a
linear philosophy, which believes in steady, perhaps sometimes unsteady,
progress. For you, life is always improving, even if not monotonically.
For me, a neo-catastrophist, life is not that simple. By life I mean, Life,
the Universe, and Everything. They are all dynamical systems. There is
no a priori reason why there should be steady progress. Extropism seems
to view the world as system with a gentle positive feedback. But that is an
unstable situation, and if the positive feedback increases, then there is a
runaway situation - a catastrophe. Because it is runaway situation it
last long. On the other hand, when negative feedbacks dominate the
system it is stable, and the system remains in that state for a long time.
When you look at such a dynamical system passing in and out of positive
and negative feedback, such as the climate, there is a very high probability
that when you look it appears stable. Catastrophic events happen seldom,
are very short lived, and so are seldom seen.
Extropism believes in a gentle positive feedback, and so you, as an
Extropist believe in a gently warming world. But the real situation
is that both positive and negative feedbacks exist. The positive feedbacks
provide the chaos, or worse.
Broecker, is publishing a paper in Global and Planetary Change entitled
"Abrupt climate change revisited" where he concludes that the D-O
events were due to sea ice. I believe that the changes in albedo
trigger positive feedback from water vapour. The Arctic sea ice is melting
rapidly. If Broecker is correct, and I am sure he is, then we can expect
another rapid climate change when next year's El Nino finishes off the
remaining Arctic sea ice. I think I can guarantee that the net benefits
that will be negative! The world is not extropistic. It is catastrophic.
> The point is that for
> every winner from change there is a loser.
Why so? Is there any reason to expect, a priori, that all persons who
are positively affected by change must have an equal (or greater) number
of counterparts who are negatively affected?
>Even if one assumes the premise that we are "optimally adapted" to the
>present climate (which I think would be difficult to rationally defend),
>it does not follow that changes to the climate would result in net costs.
Perhaps it would be useful to examine studies of potential
effects of climate change such as the US National Assessment
of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability
and Change. See:
The "Vanishing" National Climate Change Assessment,
Part 1: The Administration
Do you suppose the Bush administration is suppressing this
report because it concludes that climate change would be
a good thing?
First, I thought I made it clear that I was not advocating that a
specific (large) climate change was necessarily a good thing, merely
that "no change" cannot be automatically considered a optimum...but anyway:
That report (I've only glanced at the summary) is interesting in the way
that substantial aspects are couched in terms of *risk* rather than
*harm* per se. Even then, I note that it expects agricultural
productivity will grow - even asserting that downward pressure on prices
will be bad for farmers but good for consumers!
Being concerned about risk is in principle a rather different matter
from being concerned about change. I think many people are confusing the
two concepts, indeed they may jump freely to the former for support when
pressed on the latter. It is also easy to show (there are many simple
demonstrations) that attitudes to risk are often impossible to reconcile
with any model of reasonably rational behaviour. While irrationality is
something that we have to deal with in practical situations, I don't
think that means it should be put on a pedestal as a foundation of our
scientific and decision-making process. I'm also concerned that when
people start out with the mind-set that change is a bad thing, they are
likely to look harder for bad outcomes than good ones, thus skewing the
scientific debate. I think the discussion (both scientific and public)
of hot and cold weather deaths provides striking support for this
I spotted an interesting comment on RC, in the thread following the
recent post "How much CO2 emission is too much?":
Let me start by emphasizing where I think I agree with James. We must
begin by thinking rationally, and in order to think rationally we must
ultimately think quantitatively. Costs must be reduced to some sort of
numerical quantity (although I am not happy with how this is normally
done), and must be risk-weighted to the best of our abilities.
Nevertheless, and despite my admiration for James, I find the question
he is raising quite shockingly wrongheaded.
The main reason the greenhouse issue is not trivial is because of the
enormous benefits of cheap energy. This is obvious and I am not one to
minimize its complexity.
However, that isn't the question asked. James asked what the optimum change is.
All else equal (essentially, ignoring the benefits of cheap energy) it
seems to me almost certain that the optimum rate of change of climate
is zero or near enough zero as not to matter for practical purposes.
Historical and prehistoric civilization collapses have often been
triggered by climate change. (See Jared Diamond's book _Collapse_ for
a remarkable exposition on this and related points.) One never hears
about abrupt declines caused by excessive climate stability or about
abrupt improvements in fortune caused by climate change.
This is not accidental. If, under global warming, the fortunes of
Canada improve and the fortunes of India decline, the net effect
area-weighted might be for increased biomass, but the net effect on
human well-being will be highly negative. To a very significant
extent, this is because India is more hospitable than Canada. This is
at least one reason why the former is overcrowded and the latter
Similar arguments apply to ecological risk.
Consider that it would not take a huge change to make the planet
essentially uninhabitable; say 20 C in either direction would do the
trick. That we are talking in terms of a significant fraction of 20 C
seems to me, therefore, completely and utterly beyond the remotest
It is conceivable that our troubles are smaller than many of us
suspect, but it is also possible that they are as large or larger. In
the former case, we may be missing out on a lovely opportunity to
increase the distribution of fine vineyards and pineapple plantations.
In the latter case, it is possible that, early in our mad trajectory
to devastation and absurd tragedy, we may briefly pass by a climate
that is slightly more benign than the one provided by nature. It is
the latter case that dominates the risks. I would rather make every
possible effort not to tempt the fates in that way.
James' question seems to me oddly disproportionate to our actual circumstances.
This seems like a good place to insert a point I might have made in a reply
to the OP if not coming so late.
There is a danger of talking at cross purposes here. James seems to be
talking about "change" as impacts to human habits, society, infrastructure
etc. As such I would agree with him that change is not necessarily bad at
all, it could even be a great oppurtunity. But when I hear people bemoaning
the catastrophic consequences of climate change (often my own voice echoing
back to me!) I always take it to mean damage and destruction of ecosystems,
loss of biodiversity, droughts and floods.
I think it is kind of shallow to take reassurance in the adaptability of
humans to all kinds of climates. After all, humans live all over the globe,
from the Kalihari Desert to Greenland to Amazonian jungles. So, cleary no
matter what happens to the climate, humans could in theory adapt and live.
And I don't mean that as returning to a life style of the Bushman or Inuit,
we can keep our technology.
But the danger to humans is not a direct one, it comes indirectly from our
reliance, often hidden between so many layers of infrastructure or
manufacture, on the very same biosphere that definately is in direct danger.
Even here, change is indeed a part of natural evolution but it is not simply
a change that is cause for worry, it is the fact the the change we are
setting in motion is potentially very large and more critically very rapid.
If the biosphere suffers greatly human kind will be changed, and it will be
a change that can only be a struggle to adapt to, there are no winners to
compensate for the thousands of extinctions.
I often hear people say that all we need are the few dozen species of plants
we eat, some cattle and pigs, maybe a few species of flowers just for fun,
the rest of the biosphere be damned. My strongest negative reaction to that
vision of the future is an emotional and personal one and I have trouble
knowing for sure whether or not I have any particular right to force my
love, fascination and respect for the natural world on others. But the next
reaction is a more practical one, in that I think this would be a truly
difficult feat of bioengineering technology to create and live in such a
world. I just think the unforeseen difficulties and consequences would be
Back to does "change = bad". I think "rapid change = bad for biosphere" is
unarguble. Now, how exactly that effects people is a bit more murky, but I
see no reason to think it will be anything but hard to extremely difficult.
It was James who wrote "change = bad" but I never wrote that. He raised
that point because it is the antipathy of his Extropic philosophy, which
change = good. See http://www.extropy.org/principles.htm
What I did try to explain was that we have adapted our environment to suit
the way we want to live, and so any change would be moving it away from that
optimized state. Thus I argue that "climate change = bad".
Of course it is not all bad, and there would be advantages to certain people
and disadvantages for others. This produces the Utilitarian problem of how
to balance the advantages to one group (perhaps the 25% living in the
developed world) with the disadvantages to the other group (75% poor now,
and poorer or even dead after climate change.) I don't see how you can
argue that is certain that "climate change = good".
Let's take a subset of climate change - sea level change. As in climate
change where these arguments are really about a rise in temperature, so in
sea level change here I am only considering sea level rise. In that case I
believe I can say without fear of contradiction "sea level change = bad".
only will it reduce the amount of arable land available to a rising global
population, it will also destroy much of the infrastructure which
the wealth which we and our children inherit.
James, can you see a net advantage from rising sea levels?
Well, I feel there's a risk I'm getting pushed into defending a devil's advocacy position more strongly than I believe, but I'l play along for a bit.
> Historical and prehistoric civilization collapses have often been
> triggered by climate change. (See Jared Diamond's book _Collapse_ for
> a remarkable exposition on this and related points.) One never hears
> about abrupt declines caused by excessive climate stability or about
> abrupt improvements in fortune caused by climate change.
> This is not accidental.
No, it is arguably because scientists and the press alike prefer a scare story to a happy outcome, and they love to pin simplistic blame on a complex series of events. If all you do is subsist on what happens to be around, then a change in what happens to be around may be a great threat. Is that the fault of the climate change, or of the lack of a more resilient society that has not learnt how to cope with challenges? Of couse the flip-side is that if we exploit resources at an unsustainable rate, things will have to change at any rate. But Ehrlich was spectacularly wrong on this in his bet with Simon, as was the person (I forget who) who I saw recently asserting that Ehrlich was right, just a few years early. Don't people ever learn?
FWIW, last summer was (I understand) a remarkably good one for strawberry-growers in the UK, and I'll mention again the winter deaths issue. Good-luck stories aren't news and it often seems that they aren't considered worthwhile science either.
AIUI, extropians argue that human ingenuity is our greatest resource and that challenges bring out the best in us. War has motivated a lot of development, even though it primarily consists of people destroying lives and property. I'm not advocating war, but have they actually cost us untold billions, compared to where we would be without them?
If increased awareness (discussion) of climate change and sea level rise leads to a better defence plan for New Orleanes, then have no doubt that this will be described as a "cost of climate change", but the net result may be better (in economic, environmental and human terms) than the previous status quo. Climate doesn't just do things to us - we manage its impact.
> Similar arguments apply to ecological risk.
> Consider that it would not take a huge change to make the planet
> essentially uninhabitable; say 20 C in either direction would do the
> trick. That we are talking in terms of a significant fraction of 20 C
> seems to me, therefore, completely and utterly beyond the remotest
I think you should be able to do beter than this sort of handwave. The therapeutic dose of paracetamol is a substantial fraction of the dangerous one, too. It is, no doubt, mostly a matter of luck that we do not face 20C of warming, at least unless humans for many generations hence do everything in their power to bring such changes about (OTOH, if the climate was that sensitive or CO2 that potent, the Earth's history would be rather different).
> It is conceivable that our troubles are smaller than many of us
> suspect, but it is also possible that they are as large or larger.
Yes, it's all possible, and nothing can ever be "ruled out", to use the soon-to-be-infamous phrase. I'm just observing (and objecting to) the fact that some (perhaps many) people are asimply asserting as axiomatic a particular solution to a question that I believe is in principle open. Worse, they seem to think that their belief is in some sense a scientific truth rather than a moral judgement or perhaps practical heuristic.
Do you actually think the extopian POV is in principle invalid or defeasible?
> This is not accidental. If, under global warming, the fortunes of
> Canada improve and the fortunes of India decline, the net effect
> area-weighted might be for increased biomass, but the net effect on
> human well-being will be highly negative. To a very significant
> extent, this is because India is more hospitable than Canada. This is
> at least one reason why the former is overcrowded and the latter
> largely uninhabited.
This, I think, allows be to introduce an egregious (but all too typical)
bit of cherry picking - or should I call it rotten apple picking - in
the news today.
The UNDP's new "Human Development Report" is out, and on the BBC:
you can see the reproduced graphic which paints a picture of reduced
crop yields in Africa, along with the title "Projected impact of climate
change on cereal productivity in Africa." Substantial areas show large
drops of 25% or more "by 2080".
Going back to the UNDP report, this map is found to be based on a paper
in which some researchers took climates from a range of models under all
the main SRES marker scenarios, which give quite a range of results when
fed into their crop model.
I guess I don't need to tell you which set of model results (both from
least to most alarming model, and least to most alarming scenario) are
used for the graphic which the UNDP selected, and from which they quote
The authors of the paper even clearly emphasise (at least twice) that
the A2 scenario is now considered very much an outlier in terms of what
is actually plausible. There wasn't room to mention that minor detail in
the 424 pages of the UNDP report, of course.
So far, so standard. But on top of that, the authors of the paper also
point out that none of these potential yield losses in any region
actually approach the amount by which the current yield actually
undershoots the potential. That presumably means that take-up of normal
farming practice would mean increased yields even in the worst affected
areas and under the hypothesis of extremely high emissions and the worst
set of model results. There's not even a need to appeal to
out-of-thin-air technological miracles here, although technological
advances would hardly be unexpected over this time scale. Surely the
appropriate response here is for these societies to develop and
modernise, which will bring rapid and substantial benefits across a
broad swathe of problems, rather than "climate-proof" themselves against
something that might in extremis have a modest effect many decades hence
if they haven't moved on in the meantime.
Incidentally, according to the paper, the reduction in yield and
accompanying increase in hunger should be roughly linear with time/CO2
concentration, which suggests that it should perhaps be visible by now
if it is a real effect (I don't know about interannual variability or
quality of data collection though). Anyone know if there are data
The extopian POV is DANGEROUS optimism. It is based on the misconception
of infinite resources and so it IS invalid. When those resources run out,
they are finite they will, then extopianism wll be defeased. But not
before. It will
only be proved wrong when it is too late. Until then it will be very
that success will help gather it new recruits.
I think vulnerability to rainfall and moisture shifts is a real issue,
and is a component of vulnerability to fresh water supplies in
general. I think the sensible approach to this question is a global
one, especially from what you (James) are calling the
extopian/extropian point of view. Etymology please?
Clearly the local solution in the water stressed parts of Africa,
assuming we disallow or dislike free human migration, is to develop a
local economic base that could import either water or food. This is
easy enough to say, I suppose, and arguably very difficult to do, but
that raises yet another topic.
All that said, as you describe matters there is clearly a problem in
the way this is addressed if the emphasis is on climate change.
Without the report I can't allocate the errors effectively among the
BBC's description, the actual report, and your summary.
In my opinion, while there are relationships between the water problem
and the climate problem, they are not effectively treated as the same
Sorry if I have confused you by mis-spelling this new word that I have just
It is 'extropian' which a Google search will confirm. I think it is derived
from 'extrovert', and it seems to be a branch of (another new term for me)
'transhumanism' (see Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism
What is interesting for me is that I am not the only one to desribe it as
dangerous. Wikipedia says that "Transhumanism has been described by a
proponent as the "movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous,
imaginative, and idealistic aspirations of humanity," while according to
a prominent critic, it is THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS IDEA. [My emphasis]"
1.. Bostrom, Nick (2005). "A history of transhumanist thought". Retrieved
2.. Bailey, Ronald (2004). "Transhumanism: the most dangerous idea?". URL
accessed on February 20, 2006
3.. Fukuyama, Francis (2004). "The world's most dangerous ideas:
transhumanism". Retrieved on 2006-05-01.
I went to the UNDP page and found the report and waded through it to
find the graphic and then looked up the ref it claimed to use and found
that one-line and looked through it...I wonder how many people will do
that, versus assuming that the news report (and UNDP report) is fair and
> I think vulnerability to rainfall and moisture shifts is a real issue,
> and is a component of vulnerability to fresh water supplies in
> general. I think the sensible approach to this question is a global
> one, especially from what you (James) are calling the
> extopian/extropian point of view. Etymology please?
TBH it looks like a bit of a kooky sect. But I think you can take the
interesting parts of their POV without the full-on loopiness.
There seems to be quite a link with the "Ideas Futures" crowd, which I
think is where I first encountered this lot.
> In my opinion, while there are relationships between the water problem
> and the climate problem, they are not effectively treated as the same
I suspect that there may be a link to the UNFCCC definitional stuff that
Roger Pielke is often banging on about - if threats are attributed to
*anthropogenic climate change*, then there's a funding stream for
adaptation - but if it's just natural climate change, or even just a
lack of adequate adaptation to the existing climate, that's no-one's
> TBH it looks like a bit of a kooky sect. But I think you can take the
> interesting parts of their POV without the full-on loopiness.
Minsky. Kurzweil. brrrr.... Don't get me started. (sigh, too late.)
Loopy indeed, but not easily dismissed. Their cure may be worse than
the disease. See
for a contrary argument that takes the possible dangers of autonomous
For historical reasons, Minsky is often mentioned in the same breath
as John McCarthy (a disservice to McCarthy in my opinion). Still, I
think McCarthy's cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-to-it optimistic
futurism is to be distingushed from the Minskyite lunacy that our
purpose in the world is to replace ourselves with more reliable
That's an important context for the "proactionary principle"
that the extropians advocate in opposition to the "precautionary
principle". It's important to watch out for loopholes into which
"transhumanism" might try to slip in without proper consideration by
us run-of-the-mill humans.
It's the "according to available science" part that seems to me
spectacularly fraught with peril; artificial intelligence people think
AI is a science, and economists think economics is a science. I think
both are to a consderable extent ideologies rather than sciences.
I think climatology is a science. Others believe that it is to a
considerable extent an ideology.
And then there is string theory.
This is really a big issue. Everyone wants to defer to science but
nobody has a general methodology for distinguishing between science
That all said, I think the proactionary principle is worth looking at.
This quote bugs me:
"Because industrialised nations have focused their climate change
initiatives on reducing the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the
atmosphere, support for adaptation in developing countries has been
"piecemeal and fragmented", the report says."
It buys in to Lomborg's fallacy that we are faced with an either-or choice.
It is not "because" of climate change mitigation that adaption is
under-addressed, it is simply that adaption needs more attention.
> you can see the reproduced graphic which paints a picture of reduced
> crop yields in Africa, along with the title "Projected impact of climate
> change on cereal productivity in Africa." Substantial areas show large
> drops of 25% or more "by 2080".
> Going back to the UNDP report, this map is found to be based on a paper
> in which some researchers took climates from a range of models under all
> the main SRES marker scenarios, which give quite a range of results when
> fed into their crop model.
> I guess I don't need to tell you which set of model results (both from
> least to most alarming model, and least to most alarming scenario) are
> used for the graphic which the UNDP selected, and from which they quote
> The authors of the paper even clearly emphasise (at least twice) that
> the A2 scenario is now considered very much an outlier in terms of what
> is actually plausible. There wasn't room to mention that minor detail in
> the 424 pages of the UNDP report, of course.
I agree, that is not a very forthcoming way to do such a report.
> So far, so standard. But on top of that, the authors of the paper also
> point out that none of these potential yield losses in any region
> actually approach the amount by which the current yield actually
> undershoots the potential. That presumably means that take-up of normal
> farming practice would mean increased yields even in the worst affected
> areas and under the hypothesis of extremely high emissions and the worst
> set of model results. There's not even a need to appeal to
> out-of-thin-air technological miracles here, although technological
> advances would hardly be unexpected over this time scale. Surely the
> appropriate response here is for these societies to develop and
> modernise, which will bring rapid and substantial benefits across a
> broad swathe of problems, rather than "climate-proof" themselves against
> something that might in extremis have a modest effect many decades hence
> if they haven't moved on in the meantime.
I don't think this is a fair criticism, it is simply noting that part of the
solution should be quite straightforward. This report surely can not make
assessments based on all kinds of possible realities exist today, it must
assume that all else is equal and then apply a climate change to the
I didn't read it, but it would be the right thing to point out in the report
what you are pointing out here, that many options for ameliorating the
hardships that may be coming are all within the realm of current
> Incidentally, according to the paper, the reduction in yield and
> accompanying increase in hunger should be roughly linear with time/CO2
> concentration, which suggests that it should perhaps be visible by now
> if it is a real effect (I don't know about interannual variability or
> quality of data collection though). Anyone know if there are data
> supporting this?
I would think that the Green Revolution would hide any such effect over the
half century at least.
> I don't think this is a fair criticism, it is simply noting that part of the
> solution should be quite straightforward. This report surely can not make
> assessments based on all kinds of possible realities exist today, it must
> assume that all else is equal and then apply a climate change to the
No, if an assumption is made that "all else is equal" in a situation
where all, in fact, is not equal and moreover where the unaccounted-for
changes are likely to hugely outweigh the effect under consideration,
then the outputs can hardly be considered as a useful prediction. It may
be possible sometimes to dress up the extra effects as some uncertainty,
but if they are likely to dominate the final result then the initial
calculation seems rather futile (again, in terms of predictions - I've
no beef with people trying to understand components of complex systems
via standard reductionist techniques).
Time for another example: ocean acidification. There have been a few
papers (maybe several - here is the first I found
where people basically put organisms into an acid bath (equivalent to 2
or 3x CO2 levels, in this case) to see how they like it.
Not surprisingly, the answer is "not very much at all, especially if
they have a carbonate skeleton (which is eroded by acid)".
However, I think one might reasonably expect that 100 years of selective
pressure (increasing at ~1% per year) would result in a substantial
adaptation. Indeed it would be truly remarkable if this did not occur
(and would strongly indicate that the effect did not actually represent
a selective pressure at all). I know for sure that if someone suggested
wiping out a pest or disease by gradually ramping up the ambient
concentration of some antibiotic or pesticide by 1% per year, they would
be laughed off stage - and rightly so.
Of course, that Nature paper itself is couched in suitably moderate
terms - lots of "could" and "might". But the scary picture of deformed
coccolithophorids has been printed far and wide...
My attention was also caught by an article in NewScientist some time ago
about the rapidity of adaptation in respnse to human pressures. The
point of interest seemed to be that this adaptation was much faster than
people had previously thought:
>> Incidentally, according to the paper, the reduction in yield and
>> accompanying increase in hunger should be roughly linear with time/CO2
>> concentration, which suggests that it should perhaps be visible by now
>> if it is a real effect (I don't know about interannual variability or
>> quality of data collection though). Anyone know if there are data
>> supporting this?
> I would think that the Green Revolution would hide any such effect over the
> half century at least.
And what are the implications of this for the "millions" who are "facing
starvation"? Are they actual people, or merely an abstract mathematical
artefact arising from a particular calculation? Is it unreasonable to
expect that the "green revolution" would be (marginally) accelerated by
the hint of rising food prices in the event of (barely detectable)
climate changes? Remember, the cherry-picked results from the UNDP
report were still only of the order of 0.5% pa reduction in potential
yields in the *worst affected* areas.
You probably heard me say something similar. Biodiversity is valuable,
1. I just don't see how the planet would become unlivable because
mosses in Iceland or lice in Brazil die out. Something like 99.9% of
all species that have ever lived, have died out. More importantly,
what's the mechanism for the planet becoming unlivable?
2. Biodiversity is definitely not very productive: The oceans may be
very biodiverse, but as far as photosynthetic activity is concerned,
most of it is as barren as the Sahara, and total fish take from 3/4 of
the world's surface is 100 million tonnes (and falling due to
overfishing), while grain production from a fraction of the Earth's
land surface is 2 billion tonnes.
For high productivity we invariably rely on just a few species, that's
what fish farming, tree farming, agriculture are all about. In the case
of many fermentations, most of the effort is in keeping undesired
natural species out of the fermentation tank.
> 1. I just don't see how the planet would become unlivable because
> mosses in Iceland or lice in Brazil die out. Something like 99.9% of
> all species that have ever lived, have died out. More importantly,
> what's the mechanism for the planet becoming unlivable?
> For high productivity we invariably rely on just a few species, that's
> what fish farming, tree farming, agriculture are all about. In the case
> of many fermentations, most of the effort is in keeping undesired
> natural species out of the fermentation tank.
Gerhaus, I just love your pespective. I never had a true appreciation
for zoos and museums of natural history until you reminded me that we
need only rely upon just a few species. Why share the natural world
with things we do not need.
John L. McCormick
John, I have no doubt that you and I feel the same way about the intrinsic
value and beauty of the natural world. But even though I understand the
sarcasm directed at Gerhaus and the resentment you have of the attitude he
is expressing, I am always careful with him because he is not a "slash and
burn, who gives a f**k" anti-environmentalist despite this position on
I think he is thoughtful and rational and because of that I think he
provides a necessary challenge to those of us who do value preservation of
the natural environment highly. And I confess that I am often at a loss as
to how to construct a clear and rational defense of the necessity of a
thriving ocean and lush rain forest.
I think it is just as fair to question this belief as it is to question an
economist about what good is more and more money.
Make no mistake, there is very little doubt in my mind that a lush, thriving
natural world is hugely beneficial and important, and is so for just as many
practical reasons as emotional ones, but I can't seem to formulate the right
arguments or come up with the right information to support it without an
appeal to personal values.
Why do others believe that a coral reef is better than a fish farm?
[And I confess that I am often at a loss as to how to construct a clear
and rational defense of the necessity of a
thriving ocean and lush rain forest. ]
For me it comes down to the most basic of parental instincts: we do all
in our power to leave to our offspring a world in better shape than was
left to us by our parents. Isn' that an intrinsic duty and moral
responsibility we have towards the next generation.
Gerhaus, in one of his submittals, described himself as a parent and
desires a large family of children. That is even more reason for him
to abandon the thought that biodiversity is a fungible -- maybe
negotiable -- commodity he and we can use, manipulate or lose.
I argue most strongly: we do not own natural things, ecosystems,
biomes.......add your own terms here. They are the common goods that
make life possible. Can he or anyone decide a specie or a coral reef
is expendable? Of course not.
It is said the Amazon rainforest holds the components, elements,
extracts, etc. which might present the biochemical and pharmeceutical
industry with cures and supplements to heal the sick and add health to
invalids. Maybe yes? I do not have a reason to doubt that. My and his
children will never have the chance to do the research if our
generation squaders the feedstock by writing off biodiversity as a
Its all about our children, is it not?
I agree, but I think Gerhaus would agree as well. The key is to come up
with a compelling case for just why it is that a diverse forest ecosystem is
indeed better than a tree farm. Or in case that would seem like a strawman
to Gerhaus, we need a compelling case for why a diverse forest ecosystem and
x dollars in your pocket is indeed better than a treefarm and 2x dollars in
> I argue most strongly: we do not own natural things, ecosystems,
> biomes.......add your own terms here. They are the common goods that
> make life possible. Can he or anyone decide a specie or a coral reef
> is expendable? Of course not.
You have a practical reason here and what sounds like a moral one. I
believe also that the existing diverse ecosystems make life possible, do you
know where I could find convincing scientific support for this case? I also
agree that we do not have the right to decide that the world's corral reef
are expendable, but do you an I have the right to impose our moral outlook
Coby, playing the devil's socratic advocate.
> believe also that the existing diverse ecosystems make life possible, do you
> know where I could find convincing scientific support for this case?
While I would be the first to admit that subjectivity necessarily plays
a part in scientific judgments, the more traditional approach (at least
in theory) would normally be to examine the evidence first, and base
one's beliefs on that, rather than starting from the belief and
searching for something to prop it up with :-)
> I think you should be able to do beter than this sort of handwave. The therapeutic dose of paracetamol is a substantial fraction of the > dangerous one, too. It is, no doubt, mostly a matter of luck that we do not face 20C of warming, at least unless humans for many
> generations hence do everything in their power to bring such changes about (OTOH, if the climate was that sensitive or CO2 that
> potent, the Earth's history would be rather different).
Indeed, but I think you will concede that on a long enough time scale
there is a formal sense in which the point is inarguable.
It's clear that the larger the magnitude of the mean rate of change,
the shorter the time with which we can live with it.
If we agree that our objective is to keep the earth habitable for as
long as possible (time -> infinity) and we agree that the maximum
tolerable temperature change T is finite (T < 20 C) it follows that the
required long term average rate of change of temperature dT/d(time)
tends to zero in the limit.
> If we agree that our objective is to keep the earth habitable for as
> long as possible (time -> infinity) and we agree that the maximum
> tolerable temperature change T is finite (T < 20 C) it follows that the
> required long term average rate of change of temperature dT/d(time)
> tends to zero in the limit.
That hardly has any relevance for practical decision making, though. I
see no plausible mechanism whereby anything we do over the next 100
years (let alone the next decade or two) could result in a 20C
temperature rise, even as a future commitment let alone 2100 climate.
And in the long run, we are all dead anyway. (Sun as a red giant.)
But have you looked for a plausible mechanism? If not, then it is not
surprising that you have not found one.
In your previous post you wrote:
> While I would be the first to admit that subjectivity necessarily plays
> a part in scientific judgments, the more traditional approach (at least
> in theory) would normally be to examine the evidence first, and base
> one's beliefs on that, rather than starting from the belief and
> searching for something to prop it up with :-)
With an attitude like that you are not going to make any surprising
discoveries. The scientific method includes asking questions,
proposing solutions and searching for evidence to prove or
disprove them. According to your method no one should ever propose
a hypothesis, they should only present incontrovertible theories.
But worse, you seem to equate beliefs with scientific judgments. You
and William Connelley seem to have ruled out a future rapid climate
change because you do not BELIEVE that it can happen. You then
say that you have ruled it because as you see it there is no evidence
that it will happen. It is no wonder that you see no evidence, since
you have not looked. Moreover rapid climate change, by definition,
comes without a warning. The clues are not "handed to you on a plate."
But it is a waste of time trying to have an intelligent discussion with
you. If I don't respond to your posts no one should take it that I
think you right. In fact everything you post is wrong, and anyone with
any sense would ignore it.
All one can say is that is not as bad as that coming from gerhaush. His
beliefs are so far from the scientific truth as to be no even wrong
OK, more pedantically, "No-one has presented any plausible mechanism..."
> In your previous post you wrote:
>> While I would be the first to admit that subjectivity necessarily plays
>> a part in scientific judgments, the more traditional approach (at least
>> in theory) would normally be to examine the evidence first, and base
>> one's beliefs on that, rather than starting from the belief and
>> searching for something to prop it up with :-)
> With an attitude like that you are not going to make any surprising
> discoveries. The scientific method includes asking questions,
> proposing solutions and searching for evidence to prove or
> disprove them. According to your method no one should ever propose
> a hypothesis, they should only present incontrovertible theories.
No, it is completely reasonable to propose hypotheses that may be wrong,
and to look for evidence that speaks to them. Such evidence may either
support or falsify such hypotheses and their alternatives - some strict
Popperians might say that we can only really falsify, but IMO the
reality is a bit more flexible.
> But worse, you seem to equate beliefs with scientific judgments.
No, I was actually objecting to Coby's statement of belief *in advance
of any scientific judgement*. In a strict sense, the existence of a
prior belief is necessary given a basically Bayesian approach, but in
that case it had better be pretty vague. If your belief is not amenable
to being influenced by scientific evidence, then you aren't being
> Even if one assumes the premise that we are "optimally adapted" to the
> present climate (which I think would be difficult to rationally defend),
> it does not follow that changes to the climate would result in net costs.
Interestingly (to me at least), David Archer has backed down
significantly on his original assertion.
"the present-day warmth, which is comparable to the recent past and
arguably even beneficial"
Even though he is only conceding the possibility, rather actually making
the claim (that the warming has been beneficial), this is not the sort
of comment that is often heard in climate science circles.