Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Scary science news of the week - the Siberian permafrost is melting

Remember the people who insisted that global warming was a myth? I now demand that they eat their own hats, or mine if they don't happen to have one of their own handy. The world's largest peat bog (a million square kilometers) in Western Siberia is melting. This area has been frozen since the last ice age. the peat bog in question contains huge quantities of methane gas which will soon begin leaking into the atmosphere. Groovy, huh?
I'm starting to lose my patience with the Christian wack-job anti-science people. Siberia is melting! How much more proof do these people need? Of course I suppose that if you think that the world is going to end within about 10 years it's not that big a deal, but for the rest of us this is a complete disaster. On Sunday I watched a talk given by Jared Diamond in which he talked about his new book, Collapse. One of the things that really jumped out at me was the fact that in many of the cases he described the difference betweeen cultures that survived an ecological crisis and those that did not was how the society reacted to the crisis. I'm boiling down an hour-long lecture to its essence here, but the basic message I took away was that failure to adapt to changing environmental circumstances and an unwillingness to abandon cultural beliefs that had become unworkable were the things that doomed all the failed civilisations. What's interesting is how that applies to us. At this point there are few rational people who don't believe in glabal warming, but what are we actually doing about it? Not much, to be honest. One country or another may be making small incremental changes but there doesn't seem to be any real sense of urgency. That frightens me, because many environmentalists believe that we are at or about to reach the tipping point, and if we don't act soon it may be too late.
Another interesting thing I picked up from the Diamond talk. There are only 2 significant First World nations who have refused to comply with the Kyoto Treaty, the USA and Australia. Interestingly enough these two countries share somewhat of a common background. Both are relatively "young" countries which were colonised by Europeans who displaced the indigenous peoples, often by violent means. There are a couple of other countries I can think of which fall into the same category, namely Canada and New Zealand. Both of the latter counries are cooperating with Kyoto. What's the difference between them and the two former countries? Among other things, they way they have treated the indigenous peoples who were displaced by the European settlers. Now by no means am I suggesting that the way in which Canada or New Zealand have dealt with their indigenous populations has been entirely or even mostly fair and decent, but it has most certainly been more fair and decent than the way in which the US and Australia have dealt with the same issue. How does that tie in with the refusal to cooperate with the Kyoto agreement? I'm not sure, and I'm still chewing the idea over, but I think there's some kind of a correlation. I'm thinking it has something to do with the issue of how flexible a culture is, how able it is to adapt ot challenges. What does everyone else think? I feel like I might be on the verge of a big idea here and I have a sense of what it is but I'm struggling to find a way to put it into words.

Here's a link to a story about the Siberian problem by the way.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,12374,1546824,00.html

28 comments:

Tuomas said...

This reminds me of the show I was watching on BBC (a discussion about global warming, where people could call their opinions), and a caller (a Brit man) who said (maybe not exact words) first that the evidence that the global climate is getting warmer doesn't exist, that it's a political trick etc. then a bit later he started explaining excitedly about the theory (except he called it a fact) that the global warming that is happening has been caused by the sun just getting warmer lately.I swear I'm not kidding on this one... Evidence doesn't simply matter to some people. It just doesn't get past the willfull ignorance and dishonesty.

Oh, and Jared Diamond rocks.

Cassandra Says said...

"the sun just getting warmer lately"
Dude, you just made me spit green tea (sencha with quince to be precise) on my monitor. Bad Tuomas.
Mr. Diamond does indeed rock. The Brit who called into the program you were watching, not so much.
Side note - you get The Beeb in Finland?

Tuomas said...

Sorry about the monitor...
Yep, BBC World. Depends on the location... Most apartments on cities (like Kuopio, where I'm at, or maybe it is a town on your standards) have cable TV for everyone. No BBC on rural areas mostly, except with satellite.

Sarah in Chicago said...

I think it might be a touch more complicated that relationships with one's indigenous peoples (though, that said, Australia is just disgusting in that regard, and America treats the issue like it's a mark on the carpet).

I know one thing that we kiwis have over other countries is that we are already experiencing a number of the effects.

We have hardly any Ozone layer for a large chunk of the year. Your skin fries INSANELY quickly. More than this, being in the south pacific means that a lot of violent pacific ocean weather comes our way, as we don't have the continental effect.

But in another way, we also have a far larger sense of 'collective social responsibility' in the sense of how we fix problems that effect large numbers of people, something we share with Canada, something a lot of people here in the states dismiss as 'socialism'.

But those are just my theories mind you hon :)

Tuomas said...

There was much grumbling against the Kyoto treaty here. I think that along the invidualistic/ collectivist axis, the nationalist/internationalist axis in a country has much bearing on how easy environmentalist ideas are accepted. For example, in Sweden the treaty passed without any significant problems (very progressive and internationalist), but in Finland (Progressive but far more nationalist, even bordering on xenophobia sometimes) the concern was how this is going to hurt "us" in our competition against "them", how "unpatriotic" the treaty is, (many racist theories were trotted out, like "the hard-working Chinese" etc.) Come to think of it - I can't say I'm very proud how the Saami (indigenous laplanders) have been treated, or how the Karelian refugees were welcomed in the places they were redistributed (my grandparents being refugees, there was plenty of bitterness about the fact that refugees were given "land for free" by the government - no matter that land was usually quite miserable compared to what they had to leave behind).

The US is, IMHO, probably the hardest place to get any environmental, globally responsible ideas trough, being both opposed to collective responsibility and being ultra-nationalist ("God bless America", why not add "God damn the rest of the world"?). Of course, I'm generalizing a bit, as the US is pretty much evenly split between the Conservatives like the current Bushites, and Liberals. But even many of the US liberals are quite nationalist-seeming, and not very keen on collective responsibility (on my standards). Especially the so-called moderates.

Sarah in Chicago said...

that's a really good point Tuomas ... do you think (with obvious exceptions of course) that those countries that tend to have large collectivist mentalities also _tend_ to have more internationalist mindsets as well?

Tuomas said...


do you think (with obvious exceptions of course) that those countries that tend to have large collectivist mentalities also _tend_ to have more internationalist mindsets as well?


12:54 PM
Hmm, I'm not really sure, could be the opposite, even (I think America is exceptional)... I think history plays important part in this, whether the people in the country have learned to trust other countries. Certainly in the case of Finland it has not been so - Russia is hated for obvious reasons, Sweden isn't liked much either (former masters too, and weren't much help during the WW2), many western, Anglo-American nations have too different cultures (and again, WW2, especially the hand-wringing during the Winter War has created bitterness). And Africa and Middle/Far East are like from a different planet. Fortunately, the old bitterness from war is passing away and some trust is placed on foreigners, but we still mostly keep to ourselves.

I'm no expert on Asian culture, but aren't many Asian nations very nationalistic and quite collectivist?

Sarah in Chicago said...

hmmm ...

possibly it might also have to do with how much of a culturally/ethnically diverse population a country has.

So, if a country has a quite diverse population base (where there isn't large amount of inter-ethnic conflict), AND a collectivist mindset, I would tend to think that the country would be more likely to also have an internationalist mindset.

Just a theory mind you :)

Tuomas said...

A theory, but sounds very sensible to me (Sweden is nowadays ethnically diverse, and Finns from more ethnically diverse areas like Helsinki are usually very internationalist, rural hicks like me tend to be more xenophobic). Probably true.

FoolishOwl said...

Years ago, I was doing fundraising for CalPIRG, which was lobbying for the Clean Air Act at the time. We'd go door to door, recite a canned speech, and ask for donations.

In Walnut Creek, a wealthy, middle class neighborhood, several people would object to environmentalism on religious grounds. One person I remember argued that there were lots of forests left, and we had to use them all up so that the Second Coming would occur.

Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, argued against conservation on the grounds that we don't know how long we've got until Christ returns.

Those are the freaky extremists, though. Most people in the US consider themselves pro-environment, but they're badly informed. And they're badly informed thanks to the prioritization of short-term profits over all other considerations by corporations and the politicians they own.

Tuomas said...

Brian:
More proof that religious extremism sucks, but I'd still like to give those wackos some benefit of doubt - I think the conflict of interests that environmentalism creates with fast profits tends to color their thinking, therefore it's only natural that religious (or fake-religious) people in religious society would use religious excuses to justify their greed.

Same goes for misinformed pro-environment folk anywhere: It's not easy to think that nice car one likes so much is spewing out stuff that contributes to Greenhouse Effect, for example. Even less so for pollution-heavy industries, and people who work there (esp. CEO:s and shareowners,like you pointed out) And also if the local environment is fine people tend to be short-sighted (I think, but am not sure, it is mostly fine in America, and it is definitely mostly fine in Finland [some over-fertilization of some smaller lakes aside]).

Side note: Damn this difference in time zones, I really must be going to sleep now...

FoolishOwl said...

I can't drive a car, and this has severely limited my job opportunities. Going without a car is not a realistic option for most people. It's not a matter of individual selfishness, so much as the systematic underdevelopment of mass transit, and atrocious urban planning that makes life without a car very difficult. It's a social problem, not an individual problem.

Way off-topic: Cassandra, have you checked the email for this blog? There's a meeting on abortion rights in SF on Sunday I thought you might be interested in.

Cassandra Says said...

"So, if a country has a quite diverse population base (where there isn't large amount of inter-ethnic conflict), AND a collectivist mindset, I would tend to think that the country would be more likely to also have an internationalist mindset."
This makes sense to me. The most internationalist place I've ever lived is London, which fits both prerequisites. this theory also fits Canada quite well. The wierd exception is Russia which has quite a diverse population but which is very nationalist and not at all internationalist (and where a particularly nasty form of nationalism is on the rise - ever heard of Pamyat?).

Cassandra Says said...

Sorry Brian, haven't checked my e-mail since it only gets messages about this blog. I'll take a look today.

Sarah in Chicago said...

Cassandra -

this is only a theory mind you, but I think the reason Russia doesn't really fit is that while it has a considerably diverse ethnic population, it isn't mixed. The varying ethnicities _tends_ to stick in fairly well established areas ... and ne'er the twain shall meet. Hence the effects of having a diverse population are blunted.

Just a thought though.

Cassandra Says said...

Sarah, good thought, but explain Moscow, where one in every two children is considered to be of "mixed" parentage, and which is the seat of government.

Sarah in Chicago said...

Well ... it could be like the cities Tuomas described in Finland (and, not to mention, certain states here in the US where the politics aren't driven by the cities, but rather by the rural areas ... we won't mention which ones *smile*).

Of course, it could also just be, like with any good theory, it has exceptions ;)

Cassandra Says said...

Could be, most Muscovites I've met are considerably more internationalist than the Russian norm. As for the US states, I'm not going to go there either, I'll just mention that Thomas Frank's book is always worth a read...

Sarah in Chicago said...

Thomas Frank's book?

Cassandra Says said...

What's The Matter With Kansas?
One note though - he's a very boring public speaker, which is a shame.

Tuomas said...

The US is very nationalist, and so is Russia. Yet the two countries are very different in culture, US being invidualistic, Russia collectivist, both multi-ethnic, Russia perhaps more integrated in it. Then why are they both very nationalist? (I don't think it's a coincidence)`

Could it be a size issue, both Russians and Americans feel that they are alone self-sufficient on resources (except, especially on US, the oil)? Then again Canada is a huge country. No, that's not quite it.

I think it is actually the superpower status (or very recent one, nowadays almost-superpower status in the case of Russia) that's distorting the otherwise fine theory: Both countries usually can afford to have governments that don't care about international cooperation, this then reflecting to the whole culture. Thoughts?

Sarah in Chicago said...

It's an awfully good point Tuomas (are you still up?)

However, while superpower status could explain the nationalism, the emphasis is on 'could', not 'would'.

I would say one of the major contributors to a nationalistic mindset is a 'them' to our 'us' that also exists as a 'bad them', or (in other words) an 'Other' that is (seen as) a threat.

I mean, to a certain extent, we could (oversimplistically admittedly) reduce american history down to a history of moving from one 'other' to a new 'other' that is needed to be defended against.

Nationalism _needs_ that 'other' to be a nation in opposition to (please note the similar requirement of that other being a threat as well).

Cassandra Says said...

I would agree with the superpower argument except that Russia has always been deeply nationalistic (zenophobic might actually be a better description). On the other hand, I think most countries were pretty zenophobic until fairly recently.

Cassandra Says said...

What is the time difference between here and Finland, by the way? It's just after 8 PM here.

Tuomas said...

Oh, I woke up already. I don't want completely ruin my day rhytm, even with the vacation and all, and I don't want to waste all the daylight hours... I know I'm going to miss them on December:(

Yep, could indeed, just theoretizing. Nationalism seems to work almost as well with a rather more shadowy enemy too (instead of a nation), but there really has to be something, even a hypothetic enemy (here, the "possibility of a war with Russia(?)" is sometimes used to keep people in line and to demonize pacifists as unpatriotic).

Side note to Brian, I completely agree on the need of cars/public transport comment, I suppose I was projecting on that example... I mean, I could arrange my life (without economic loss) to be carless, but I enjoy using a private transportation, and I like to drive.

Oh, it's 6 AM Friday morning here... And the weather looks really crappy. Oh well.

Cassandra Says said...

I agree on the public transportation issue to. I think there are compelling social and environmental reasons to make public transport the default (ie cheap and widely avaliable, without in any way banning cars, thus using the carrot rather than the stick approach). One of the things I miss most about London is the sense of freedom that comes from being able to get anywhere without a car (and not having to worry about parking once you reach your destination). This also helps to cut down on drunk driving, although for it to really work pt needs to run at least a skeleton service throughout the night.
Sorry about the bad weather, T. And I think you get up while on holiday at about the same time I get to bed when I'm on holiday...

Tuomas said...

Well, I'm up a quite a bit earlier than usually, and during winter weekends I practically hibernate. Weather doesn't really bother me that much, It's a nice excuse to mostly stay indoors and comment on blogs.

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting article in a recent Scientific American, I subscribe, don't know if it's available online for free.

These guys studied climate, changes in the earth's orbit relative to the precession of the earth's axis, and compared this to the ice cores and other climate data.

The results were interesting. We should be well into another ice age. Most of us would not be here but for global warming.

Further, it started with agriculture, not industrialization. Industrialization has increased global warming, but it is not the base cause.

Some conclusions (mine).

1) without global warming, most of the far north would be unliveable now, frozen, glaciers would be starting to head south. Growing seasons southward would be affected, shorter, but who knows by how much.

2) we need agriculture, without it we'd starve.

3) we need industrial argiculture, or we cannot grow and water and distribute the crops.

4) the long term effects of global warming are not known, most climate modeling is still done in 2 dimensions and most orginizations have an agenda.

5) the natural effects that cause an ice age have not gone away, this is still a force (as it were) opposing global warming.

----

So we *need* global warming, perhaps not as much as we've got, but some at least. Things may yet balance out, I can't say.