Jun 1

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Tropical Arctic in Distant Past

The NY Times has a thought-provoking article about global warming. According to three studies of the arctic seabed floor that were just published in Nature, 55 million years ago, the arctic was at a temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit. (They don't say how hot that made the rest of the world, but it must have been pretty steamy!)

Obviously, these kinds of time scales dwarf our sensibilities, and can easily lead to a do-nothing attitude about global warming and its possible impact on civilization as we know it. But it seems to me that global warming should be very much on the minds of the technology audience, as we are among a small group who might be able to help do something about it. Alternative energy sources will be one of the big themes of the next decade, and people like you will play a huge role in shaping the future of the planet to the extent you get involved.

(I'm really looking forward to the premiere of An Inconvenient Truth. I saw Al Gore's presentation at TED, and it really blew me away, both because of the subject matter, and because Gore himself has transformed from a stilted, wooden speaker to someone with the fire of a Larry Lessig!

tags: the long view  | comments: 12   | Sphere It

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Comments: 12

  Joe Hunkins [06.01.06 09:05 AM]

I respect Gore a lot for many reasons, but I'm concerned by what appears to be a "propagandistic" rather than "scientific" lean to this film (this is based on clips and comments by those who have seen the film). I do not think he's a clear thinker on this topic and sees himself more as a "prophet".

If we focus on addressing the many global problems like health and economies of the developing world we can get a spectacular return on the investment of mental and monetary capital. Collateral advantages will be reductions in terrorism and a huge boost in good will and personal satisfaction.

Investing in alleviating human causes of global warming has no clear path to success, yet the costs are simply staggering.

  Tim O'Reilly [06.01.06 09:51 AM]

Joe --

I see you've read The Skeptical Environmentalist. And I certainly agree with Bjorn Lomborg that there are other pressing problems where there is a great return on investment. But it also seems to me that many of the things that would be required to help with global warming could have enormous payoff. Critics talk about enormous costs, but it seems to me that the costs of the current way of doing things are always hidden.

A great example of this is railroads vs. automobiles. There's always been a huge debate about rail from the north bay down to San Francisco, with critics talking about the $150 million projected cost as a subsidy. But no one talks about the tens of billions of dollars of subsidy represented by the creation and maintenance of the highway system. Railroads are expected to carry their costs and described as uneconomic because they need subsidies, but the automobile industry managed to get much larger subsidies baked into the economy and hidden so that they no longer even appear as subsidies.

  Thomas Lord [06.01.06 10:26 AM]

I'm bullish on VOIP and other on-line communications. All technology related to home offices and garage-based light manufacturing. Complex, fine-grained delivery services (a corner store in every planned community cul de sac, please). Micro-busses and everything related to conversion of main arteries to have more dedicated bus lines. Recreation of the L.A. competitive market for public transportation using said microbusses. Home-improvement-on-a-budget technologies. Value-realignment stuff like the fresh food movement. Transparent trade a la Peet's coffee. The NRA, the local theater, and military recruiting in high-school. :-)


  Kevin Farnham [06.01.06 11:18 AM]

Some things I've read that make me think we really have very little understanding of what's happening, why it's happening, and where it's leading to:

50 years ago, the scientific guess was that we were slipping back into an Ice Age.

The last Ice Age was 14,000 years ago; historically, the periods between recent ice ages have lasted only about 10,000 years. We appear overdue to enter a new ice age.

That the Arctic was very warm 55 Million years ago suggests that on its own the Earth's climate varies widely.

The Earth today is about 18 degrees colder than it was during the peak age of the dinosaurs.

In the past 2 million years or so, the Earth has often experienced 100,000 year ice ages.

It has just been announced by scientists that the ozone hole over Antarctica is "healing" and may disappear entirely within 30-50 years. This is attributed to changes in human behavior. Since we emitted large amounts of ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere for decades and an ozone hole appeared, then we significantly reduced our emission of those chemicals and the ozone hole has begun to heal, it would appear that a cause and effect relationship truly existed: human behavior caused and is now healing the ozone hole.

Very accurate global temperature data, available for the past century or so, has lots of wobbles, but does appear to be suddenly increasing. Unfortunately, this data is not available for the past 50,000 or so years, so it is not possible to scientifically / mathematically determine how abnormal the current sudden fluctuation really is. Without being able to do this, we cannot be certain about its cause.

Another recent report suggests that hurricane activity may have been reduced in intensity in the latter half of the 20th Century due to air pollution. Now that the air is cleaner, we may return to a more violent pattern of many Katrina-like hurricanes each year.

Some researches say that melting of ice in the arctic is altering the gulf stream, with the predicted result of much colder temperatures in Europe in the near future. Warming that melts the Arctic ice will produce much colder climate in Europe.

My point? We know very little about this. Therefore, it's important for everyone to maintain an open point of view. The angry dogmatic responses I sometimes read on both sides of the issue seem inappropriate and almost idiotic to me.

In complex physical and biological systems, sometimes "pushing" in one direction induces a rebounding effect, which results in the intervention producing an effect that is the opposite of what was desired.

Anyone who says they know for certain what's happening and what should be done hasn't considered all the evidence. Or maybe I'm the only one not smart enough to see a clear pattern in the items I listed above?

  John Vilsack [06.01.06 11:55 AM]

Your response is quite valid, especially considering that even with the most accurate of atmospheric models available today it is still intelligent guesswork at best.

My only concern is that those that say that the dogmatic, firebrand approach that "treehuggers" take is nothing more than Chicken Little are missing the point.

Shouldn't the dialogue created by such concerns be more about what we all "can" do to have less of an impact on our environment versus what may or may not "be" happening?

In my humble opinion, I think that erring on the side of caution is a more responsible approach. Sure, Global Warming might at least in part be a cyclical event that our planet has seen come and go a hundred times. Perhaps its in the best interest of not only ourselves, but our children to do whatever we can now.

  Kevin Farnham [06.01.06 01:50 PM]

John, I may have slightly misled by focusing on how uncertain our understanding is. In fact, if the data starts lurching and you don't understand why, that's even more reason for concern. As someone who's spent decades studying data and writing algorithms to identify "turning points" and assess whether a data wobble represents "noise" or a change in "signal" -- I look at the global temperature chart, and from an eyeball view, it looks like a signal-based lurch is probably happening in the past 8 years or so.

That said, I would be surprised if a clear solution can be "known" by anyone today. Those who say "nothing" is happening -- well, I say to them "look at the data." The raw data is very troubling, given the huge investment we've made in constructing our entire infrastructure based on 20th Century weather patterns (why would we have not done so?).

For those who say "it's obvious what's happening, and it's obvious what the solution is" -- well, from these people I'd like to see some equations and experimental proof of cause and effect, before we spend enormous amounts of money on a "solution" that could well boomerang us into the next ice age due to mistaken execution of the plan.

I also think there's a moral issue with respect to spending money on a speculative solution to global warming when 30 Million of our brothers and sisters in Africa have AIDS and are dying because they don't have the 75 cents a day it costs for the medicine that would keep them alive...

So.. I do think we need to give global warming attention, it's very important to do so. But I think it has to be looked at reasonably and critically, not treated like it's just politics.

I agree with Tim that technology is our best hope for solving the problem. And technology, drastically increased scientific research, mathematical modeling of the data sets we have, are necessary for diagnosing what's really happening and trying to determine what specific actions may have the desirable effect...

Increase the climate research budget by 1500% -- that's a proposal I'd definitely support. That would be much less expensive than current proposals, and would be much more likely to result in a solution that has a decent chance of success.

  Joe Hunkins [06.01.06 03:46 PM]

>>no one talks about the tens of billions of dollars of subsidy

  Joe Hunkins [06.01.06 04:14 PM]

Whoops - I see that you meant that a huge payoff could come from things like alternative energy innovations that we might not explore as part of the tackling global warming more aggressively.

The trick with that justification is that this is basically true for any major shift in spending and focus.

I'd even suggest that the positive technology spinoffs from $250,000,000,000 towards global health and development would simply dwarf those from that investment in Greenhouse gas alleviation (or military or first world health care, etc, etc).

  Jeroen Wenting [06.02.06 06:47 AM]

The problem with "global warming" is that it isn't what the environmentalists scream about. In fact, without global warming the earth would be locked into an eternal ice age and quite incapable of supporting life as we know it.

Climates change, there's nothing we can do to change that, direct it towards something we would prefer to see.
The climate has been changing for billions of years and will continue to change for billions of years to come no matter what we do or try to do.
Thinking that human intervention can (deliberately or otherwise) cause more than insignificant effects on all that is foolish to say the least. It reflects an attitude of feeling that you're some godlike creature with divine powers.
It's now well established that 2000 years ago the UK and northern Germany had a mediteranean climate, 10 degrees or so warmer in winter (and a few degrees warmer in summer) than today.
In the 1700s there was what is now called a minor ice age.
Nothing Man did changed that or caused it, and so are current changes completely independent of anything we do or don't.

As others have pointed out, the money spent on well meant but ill fated Kyoto related projects is all wasted. It will over a period of 50 years produce at most a change in the natural change of the climate of 1.5 degrees in temperature, a change that is smaller than the inaccuracy with which that temperature is determined...
Given the natural forces at work, it's almost certain that no such effect is ever reached at all, after all you're pushing against a system that's striving for a ballance, a ballance you're trying to disrupt.

And what are you trying to do anyway? The total human portion of the global CO2 output is a few percent.
And CO2 is responsible for only a few percent of the total net effect of the atmosphere on the surface temperature of the planet.
Changing that output by a few percent will have no effect at all.
In fact, the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens put more "greenhouse gasses" into the atmospher than did all of mankind combined between about 1750 and 2000.

  Jared White [06.02.06 12:28 PM]

I agree with the comments that the scientific evidence for man-made causes for global warming is hardly conclusive. I put my money on a natural rebound from a too-cold environment hundreds of years ago. There's also the solar radiation issue -- Mars, for instance, is having global warming. Wow, I guess those Martians better stop driving SUVs everywhere.

One more funny thing: Al Gore taking a jet trip to some event will introduce as much CO2 into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels as an average person driving a Hummer around for a year!

  Joe Hunkins [06.02.06 03:34 PM]

Jeroen that Mt St Helens stat is VERY dubious:

See this from AP:

"people and their activities pump 26 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere, he said. The total from volcanoes is about 200 million tons a year — or less than 1 percent of the man-made emissions"

The issue is NOT about humans affecting warming - they DO and this is now crystal clear from the science.

However it is not scientific to focus
only on the negative potential consequences of warming, ignoring other factors and alternative action schemes.

  Thomas Lord [06.03.06 08:08 AM]

In the U.S., we seem to be facing a very long period in which energy prices will more or less steadily rise. For a shorter term future, the strength of the dollar is rather shakey.

Concurrently, distribution of wealth -- while improved for some segments -- is a larger problem than ever with such interesting effects as large, unsafe urban areas and high levels of incarceration unevenly distributed across segments.

There are significant infrastructure problems everywhere you look and these become harder to solve as the dollar weakens and as construction costs climb due to international competition for raw materials.

We are probably past some point of no return in producing major immigration reform and this will inevitably put upward pressure on the price of labor.

The exurban housing stock and current private vehical fleet, while they may in theory be adaptable, are looking like dubious choices in coming years which will put further strain on household budgets and financial systems.

The baby boomer generation combined with our all but intractable health-care industry threatens to impede economic growth and reduce quality of life in its own special ways. Let's also not forget the crisis is pension funds and other retirement benefits.

I won't touch the rights or wrongs of military spending here. I simply note that regardless of what happens in Iraq at this point, that spending will remain high for some time to come.

Those factors are all, trivially, created by human action. As with the environment, we should be accutely alert to reaching a "tipping point".

And this is my point: if we reach that economic tipping point, major structural changes to the US economy will occur. If we avoid that tipping point, it will be because we have made major structural changes to the US economy.

In other words, major strutural changes to the US economy are inevitable -- and not far off.

Bolstering domestic production of essentials (real goods, quality of life guarantees) while increasing energy efficiency in big ways is the best way to respond to a weakened dollar, high energy prices, proportionately reduced work-force and increased pool of retirees, etc. It is also a real basis of a foundation on which to boost exports (as opposed to just relying on the yuen coming down). It is where the U.S. can find money to fight global poverty and its security, health, and environmental consequences.

Making these major structural changes in a positive way -- rather than waiting for the economic tipping point -- is first of all a job for our industrial thought leaders. It is they who have demonstrated ability to market new notions of "what the good life is". It is they who have the position to muster the creation of new industries. It is they who determine the conditions of employment under which workers decide whether or not to drive a single occupant gas-guzzler 40 miles to work each morning. It is they who modulate buying power against the health care system. Etc.

As I said, I'm bullish on VOIP, home improvement kits for energy efficiency, home offices and light manufacturing, light ag in the exurbs, etc.


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