I’ve been playing with a thought experiment.  I don’t think it’s very original, but I think it’s an interesting exercise so I’m going to share it with you and ask for your input.  This is an outgrowth of a Global Warming conversation I had the other day with my book club.  (Yes, I live in the country and am [semi-]retired.  We do that sort of thing.) Most of the table accepted the science and was in agreement with with the proposition that Global Warming is happening, is serious, and that something ought to be done about it.  No one said quite what should be done, and that’s a pretty big question.  I’ll get to that.  One friend at the table doesn’t seem entirely convinced it’s happening and doesn’t think we can or should do anything about it even if it is.  That’s a not-uncommon view; one that is apparently winning the political argument in many parts of the world.  So it’s not an insignificant point of view.  It discounts the contribution of a huge number of scientists who are working on this topic; I strongly disagree with some of the “scientific” conclusions of our sceptical friend, but the issue is not so clear when it comes to what should be done about Global Warming.  The rest of us might agree that this is a big problem and we’ve all got to get off our arses and do something, but my reading suggests that the world’s options are severely limited.

There’s plenty of emotion in this sort of discussion, but does the discussion itself even make a difference?  Is there anything to be gained in eight over-60s living in relative comfort in country NSW, passionately discussing problems that are not likely to become critical until after we’re all dead.  It feels like an important subject, but is it really?  I don’t know the answer to that.  I can’t help but react to silly denialist arguments about the science, but when it comes to what we ought to do about it, I get stuck on the question of who is meant by “we”.  There are significant limitations to our ability as individuals to make a difference in the face of such a huge lumbering avalanche that is taking it own sweet time to bury us.

So here’s the thought experiment (at least my first crack at it):

Scientists have discovered a rogue asteroid in the solar system.  It’s over 10km in diameter and it’s headed our way.  It’s coming in from the outer solar system and will pass within shouting distance of a gas giant or two, so it’s hard to say exactly where it’s going to end up.  But the calculation are clear on a few things: it’s going to miss the Earth and pass inside the orbit of Mercury to swing around and start back out of the solar system.  When close to the sun tidal forces will almost certainly break it into many smaller pieces.  And some of those smaller pieces, along with a few piece that may still be very large, will be headed, most likely, towards a collision with Earth.  That collision, should it occur, will happen on December 22, 2062.  That gives us 50 years.  If we do nothing it will probably be very bad – no guarantees, but a 90% chance.  The science, while couched in probabilities, is very solid. So…

[poll id=”3″]

If an answer you like is in my list, please select it (you can choose up to two of them).  If a completely different answer occurs to you, please let me know in the comments and I might be able to add it to the list.  This is really just a draft.  I’d like to turn it into something that will get people thinking.  I’m sure the answers I’ve created reflect my bias, so please, if you have another way to express any of the answers let me know. 

6 Responses to “Slow catastrophe”

  1. I like your diversionary tactic: that a hypothetically tangible “slow catastrophe,” i.e. big rocks, would be a spur to a massive, concentrated world effort to avert the catastrophe, whereas, by 2050, an existing slow catastrophe would make all those efforts moot. By 2050, we will have reached the critical 2oC=3oC point of global warming when mass extinctions — and truly catastrophic affects on both the developed and undeveloped world — will likely begin, on our march to the 7oC rise by 2100 that could be considered the first move toward checkmate. I am not skeptical about this: after millions of calculations, the upwards curve is simply not moving to any other slope.

    So, if we look at the ongoing catastrophe vs. the more dramatic hypothesis, all of the possible responses are in play right now, with an overwhelming passive vote for “do nothing.” Any “nations of the world/market driven technology/no matter what the cost, is countered by the fact that by 2015 – not 2050 – coal burning China will have 1 billion vehicles on the road…driving us to the high end of less-than-hypothetical high end of the scale.

    The rocks will hit the planet. The trajectory is unmistakable. We already know this. Our existing technologies aimed their trajectory directly toward us. Conceivably, we could arrest its progress by 2015 with only significant, rather than catastrophic consequences. But the effort it would take is not only unlikely, but the economic impact of the effort is anathema.

    I’ll end with an observation: in the 2012 U.S. election, neither candidate mentioned the words “global warming” in any public statement. Addressing global warming as a matter of policy is basically off the table.

    And my son will be 50 years old in 2050.

    • While there are a number of justifications that parties opposed to action on global warming could conceivably use, it’s bizarre that they’ve chosen to vilify the messenger. Science is the only tool we have to inform ourselves about the risks that face us, what the most effective response might be and possibly the source of a solution that is not yet known. Without science we’re comprehensively stuffed. And yet the Republicans in the US and the Liberal/Nationals in Australia continue to make science their enemy. I suppose they feel the need to discredit any idea that violates their political philosophy. By doing so they kill off the possibility of intelligent debate. So we are left with what we’ve got – watching that rock heading straight at us and pretending that its not.

  2. Michael Hollingworth says:

    I’m not sure how the voting works, but I would see combining the first and the second solutions – why make them different or exclusive? When it comes to global warming, we should do everything in our power to balance the effects – even if we could discount the catastrophe scenario (which in my view we can’t), we would make the living world a better, healthier place, and be focusing our intelligence and energy on community, in the largest sense.

    • The voting was set up to allow two choices, so the first and second were never meant to be exclusive. I also expect that I’ll do another version of this in the future with better thought out answers. I’m certainly open to other options and differently expressed answers.

  3. Robyn Daly says:

    The truth is that nothing will happen – two generations away? What have they ever done for me? It will be closer to 3, or optimistically 5, years beforehand for politicians to decide something should be done and by then it may well be too late unless the Richard Bransons of the world are on the ball. This is why I’m quite cynical about preventing the worst of global warming. I’m just grateful I will be dead and won’t see what my grandkids will have to cope with. 🙁

  4. There are only 8 votes so far. I don’t have any illusions about how far this blog post is likely to reach, but so far the votes favour all nations in the world getting together to solve the problem. With climate change, the “real” slow catastrophe that’s probably the least likely outcome. No one has yet voted for doing nothing, the most likely climate change outcome. Interesting.

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