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Transhumanism As A Solution To Climate Change March 19, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Well I must admit this is  new one on me.  An interview of philosopher  S. Matthew Liao published recently in the Atlantic focuses on a new and controversial paper he and his colleagues have put forward.  The paper in question asks whether or not anthropogenic climate change can be solved or at the very least mitigated through enhancement of humans with traits which lower our carbon footprint.  In short rather then changing our society or economy why don’t we just change ourselves.

Now I’ve heard all sorts of crazy ideas to fix the climate.  I’ve heard seemingly practical ideas unfortunately turn out to not actually work due to unforeseen realities (iron fertilization, corn ethanol), I’ve heard great-on-paper ideas that would never fly in the real world (get people to voluntarily slash their energy consumption), I’ve hear batshit crazy ideas that sound like the plot of a bad Sci-Fi channel movie (giant space mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays).  But this is the first time I’ve heard someone seriously consider the idea having humans adapt themselves not simply in order to survive climate change but actually to reverse it.  If nothing else, it’s a new avenue of thought.

The enhancements chosen as examples range from the fairly mainstream (by transhumanist standards) to the rather out there.  Suggestions like giving people who want to give up meat but lack the necessary willpower drugs which induce nausea whenever they chow down on a steak are fairly practical even with today’s technology.  As others have noted considering the sheer amount of carbon released by animal husbandry and the meat industry helping a substantial number of people turn vegetarian would put a serious dent in our carbon output.  Other ideas are also based on solid foundations but are probably less likely to take hold.  Making humans smaller to reduce the amount of resources they require would probably work but are unlikely to catch on given the immense importance our society places on height as a marker of social standing.

Of course my favorite example has to be the suggestion of engineering humans with cat eyes, and thus great night vision, in order to reduce the amount of energy needed for lighting.  Stuff like this is the best part of transhumanism; outlandish, seemingly insane ideas that upon reflection reveal themselves to be nothing more then the kind of outside the box thinking that pushes science and the bounds of human knowledge onwards.  Also, who among you wouldn’t want to a pair of cat’s eyes (I know I would). It’s such a cool idea that it makes me wonder why the authors didn’t mention what seems to me to be the most obvious and wonderfully cool human enhancement for drawing down carbon levels: photosynthetic humans.  Imagine the combined effects of 7 billion human beings drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere, in addition to the reductions brought about through decreased agriculture and meat production as people eat less and less.  It would also put a whole new twist on “It’s not easy being green.”

Now before anyone points out the obvious I am well aware that many of these ideas are not practical.  That’s besides the point.  As the authors point out the purpose of this paper specifically and philosophical inquiry in general is not to be practical.  It’s about taking an idea and stretching it to it’s breaking point, tearing it apart bit by bit, putting it back together again and seeing if it still works correctly, and in that respect they did a magnificent job.

Needless to say the article has attracted the usual frenzy of ill-informed commentators that make the internet such a wonderful place to hang out.  I’m not going to spend any time on them since quite frankly you can go read the comments yourself if you’re really interested but the level of ignorance displayed is shocking even by the standards of the internet.  It got so bad the the authors actually took part in a rebuttal interview explaining their positions and pointing out misconceptions about what they believed.


Scientists Confirm (Again) That The Earth Is Warming October 22, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Well hello there boys and girls.  Looks like I’ve been away for quite a while.  A combination of classes and preparing to defend my thesis has for the most part occupied all of my time.  That being said, if anything can kick me out of my funk and get me back on here it’s news like this.

Global warming is real, according to a major study released Oct. 20. Despite issues raised by climate change skeptics, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study finds reliable evidence of a rise in the average world land temperature of approximately 1°C since the mid-1950s.

On the basis of its analysis, according to Berkeley Earth’s founder and scientific director, Professor Richard A. Muller, the group concluded that earlier studies based on more limited data by teams in the United States and Britain had accurately estimated the extent of land surface warming.

“Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the U.S. and the U.K.,” Muller said. “This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change skeptics did not seriously affect their conclusions.”

Now at first glance this isn’t really big news.  Yes it is yet another study that that anthropogenic climate change is happening and yes it confirms that the previous studies that deniers (I refuse to sully the noble word skeptic by applying it to them) have attacked ad nauseum.  No, what’s really interesting is where and who this study coming from.

Robert Muller, the lead scientist on the team, is a well known denier who has not only attacked the quality of previous studies but also the character of the scientist performing them.  To have someone like that come out and essentially say “My bad” is a big thing.

But the best part is who was funding the study.  Are you ready for this?  THE KOCH BROTHERS!  That is right.  Part of the funding for this research came directly from the billionaire Koch brothers, infamous for their support of the tea party movement and for deniers of climate change.  Bet that’s the last time we’ll see them hiring independent scientists to confirm their baseless conspiracy theories.

To Stop Climate Change Scientists Propose Blocking Out The Sun (No, Really) April 9, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Science.
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Okay lets get a few things out of the way.  Yes, climate change is happening.  The average temperature of the earths atmosphere has been rising quite steadily for…well for as long as we’ve been measuring it.  Yes, we probably have something to do with it.  Atmospheric CO2 has been rising with remarkable steadiness is at least the 1950’s (I chose the 1950’s since that’s when the Keeling Curve measurements began) and that is almost certainly contributing.  Yes, we are now at the point where only a rather drastic restructuring of our society and economy would bring levels back down to where they need to be.

If we assume that these assumptions are correct then we are left with only one conclusion: we’re kind of screwed.  The chance of any substantial changes occurring either at the political or the local level at this point in the game are rather small.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that humans generally do not take action on matters with long term consequences until well after its too late.  This conclusion has driven many scientists and politicians to consider alternative solutions to our problem.  What if instead of changing our entire way of life we could come up with a simple technological fix to solve all our problems, thus deluding us into thinking we can continue our ultimately unsustainable lifestyle indefinitely?  Hence, geoengineering.

Geoengineering appeals to people on multiple levels.  As already stated it allows us to continue our current way of life.  It appeals to our vanity by proposing that our ingenuity and genius can overcome any problem.  There’s just one little problem; none of the proposed projects have a chance in hell of succeeding.

Its said that in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king.  Well in the kingdom of crazy geoengineering ideas one idea has come out ahead simply by being less crazy than all the others: blocking out the sun.  No, really.

“There’s the `slippery slope’ view that as soon as you start to do this research, you say it’s OK to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Steve Rayner, co-director of Oxford University’s geoengineering program. Many geoengineering techniques they have thought about look either impractical or ineffective…

Those techniques are necessarily limited in scale, however, and unable to alter planet-wide warming. Only one idea has emerged with that potential.

“By most accounts, the leading contender is stratospheric aerosol particles,” said climatologist John Shepherd of Britain’s Southampton University.

The particles would be sun-reflecting sulfates spewed into the lower stratosphere from aircraft, balloons or other devices – much like the sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991, estimated to have cooled the world by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) for a year or so.

Now I want to stress that when it comes to geoengineering I hold no animosity towards the scientists investigating its efficacy or dangers.  This is research that needs to be done unless we want to charge blindly ahead once the danger has come and we have no other choice and good scientists like these people seem to be understand both the practical challenges and the limits of scientific certainty (hint: you are never, ever, EVER certain something will work.)

My problem is that all that scientific skepticism is lost on the public.  To hear this reported on in some circles you’d think it was out panacea, our magic bullet.  “Don’t worry about climate change, we’ll just dump some iron into the ocean and everything will be fine,” and that idea is being exploited by politicians who know damn well that the easiest way to not get elected is to ask people to suffer a little bit now in order to prevent suffering later (e.g. Jimmy Carter.)

Rather than being easy solutions every currently proposed project stands to be both ridiculously expensive, at least partly ineffective and potentially dangerous.  Just as an example lets take blocking out the sun.  While I don’t know the costs off the top of my head (I doubt anyone does) I can only imagine that seeding the stratosphere with aerosol particles would be a massive undertaking.  Keep in mind that since clouds tend to disperse we would need to be constantly reseeding them in order to maintain the cloud cover.  This process would need to be continued until we had managed to bring our CO2 emissions down to a safe level, something which would likely take decades at the least.

Next lets talk about effectiveness.  I’ll grant that increasing cloud cover  would probably lower global temperatures by a fair amount.  Unfortunately it would do nothing to the CO2 already present in the atmosphere.  Unless emissions were leveled off simultaneous will the seeding then as concentrations continue to rise we would need ever more and more cloud cover to counter the increasing effects.  Furthermore it would do absolutely nothing to counter the other big threat of climate change: ocean acidification.  As CO2 dissolves into the sea water it will naturally lower the pH of the world’s oceans with potentially devastating consequences for ocean life.

Lastly there are significant risks to injecting aerosol particles into our own atmosphere.  Let’s not forget that the widespread use of CFC’s, a type of aerosol released by many industries at one time, led directly to the weakening of the global ozone layer and the still-present holes in the layer above Antarctica and the Arctic.

Posts like this make me very angry at myself because when I finish them I always come across as a loom-smashing Luddite demanding we all return to the stone age.  Its not that I think these are idiotic ideas outright only that with a little effort and resources, certainly less than would be required to actually pull off one of these projects, we could largely avert the threat of climate change and render the entire field of geoengineering moot.  Whether we take the necessary steps or not remains to be seen and while I’ve never been optimistic about humanity’s ability to engage in long term planning I haven’t given up hope on us yet.

Blue Petroleum: Bio-fuel From Algae March 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Boy this technology seems to be getting a lot of news lately.  A Spanish firm is the latest company attempting to grow petroleum from phytoplankton.

At a time when companies are redoubling their efforts to find alternative energy sources, the idea is to reproduce and speed up a process which has taken millions of years and which has led to the production of fossil fuels.

“We are trying to simulate the conditions which existed millions of years ago, when the phytoplankton was transformed into oil,” said engineer Eloy Chapuli. “In this way, we obtain oil that is the same as oil today.”

Though similar to other stories I’ve commented on there are important difference in what these researchers are trying to do.  Rather than bioengineering a species of algae to naturally produce fuel through their own photosynthetic process these guys are trying to recreate the Devonian period and make this oil magic strike twice.  Honestly I’m not sure what to think of this method.  Though the article is a little hazy on the details from what I remember the original conditions that led to oil formation involved massive amounts of decaying plant matter with high pressure and temperature.  If these researchers are trying to recreate that then it seems like a far more difficult and intensive method than other ones I’ve seen.

More importantly though it doesn’t address the issue I mentioned with other methods of biofuel production; the fact that this does nothing to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2.  The article touts the fact that the carbon used in the process is taken from emissions from a nearby cement factory and therefore attempts to flout it’s green credentials.  However what it doesn’t mention, and what every example of this technology shares, is the fact that every bit of carbon taken up will be released back into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned.

At best this kind of technology is a stopgap measure, a way to buy us a little more time, not a solution.  Even if we switched all fuel use in the world over to petroleum grown in this method the best result we could achieve is to stabilize Co2 and therefore temperature at near future conditions.  Carbon present in the atmosphere will still be there and will remain for thousands of years.  The only real solutions are to adapt to a new baseline (considering our lack of foresight this is probably the path we will take) or to find a way to return the carbon to an inorganic form and take it out of the carbon cycle permanently.  To do so would require putting into a sedimentary form like calcium carbonate and sequestering it in a place (like the ocean floor) where the chance of it returning would be slim.

To those wondering about some of the other proposed solutions let me deal with them now.  Carbon capture technology is a load of crock.  Disregarding the fact that it’s being heavily pushed by the coal industry (perform a simple Bayesian analysis and tell me if there is a likely conflict of interest) the fact remains that carbon stored will still be in a gaseous form.  Given the right conditions it would easily return to the atmosphere.

Storing the carbon in plant biomass is a better option but still not a solution.  This line of thinking has been behind a whole lot of experiments ranging from planting trees in previously cut forests to saturating the ocean with iron to encourage phytoplankton blooms.  Obviously some of the methods work better than others with the important goals being to store the carbon in a form that is inedible to animals (if they eat it they’ll respire is back into the atmosphere) and relatively permanent (for obvious reasons).  Large woody trees with lots of bark satisfy both of these conditions well and would make them ideal candidates while short lived and easily eaten things like phytoplankton do not.  However even the best candidates are little more than a stop gap since the carbon is still present in the cycle, albeit in a relatively stable state, and will continue to cycle through the environment.  Like biofuels all this method would do is buy us time.

What we need is a technology that both powers our society at levels of current consumption (we’ll never reduce consumption to the degrees we need) and works to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The “artificial leaf” I talked about a little while ago would seem to be the holy grail in this regard and I hope it shows the ability to scale up.

Diesel From Algae: The Future Of Fuel February 27, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Okay so first thing first I lied a little bit in the title.  A company in Massachusetts is claiming to have genetically engineered a species of cyanobacteria (once called blue-green algae, so only a little lie) that produces hydrocarbons when exposed to sunlight, water and CO2.  In other words where most autotrophs use photosynthesis to produce sugars like glucose these little guys make gasoline.

Now the idea of growing fuel, so to speak, is certainly not a new one and in many ways has become indicative of everything that is wrong with the renewable energy industry.  The first big attempt was a heavily government sponsored effort to produce biofuel using corn ethanol.  Considering what an incredibly inefficient process that is it turned out to be little more than a massive giveaway to the big agribusiness companies.  Other efforts using algae have looked more promising but have run into to problems of logistics and whether or not they can produce enough to actually be profitable.  According to the article that’s what makes this species so exciting:

Joule says they’ve eliminated the middleman that’s makes producing biofuels on a large scale so costly.

That middleman is the “biomass,” such as the untold tons of corn or algae that must be grown, harvested and destroyed to extract a fuel that still must be treated and refined to be used. Joule says its organisms secrete a completed product, already identical to diesel fuel or ethanol, then live on to keep producing it at remarkable rates.

Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a barrel.

Sounds great doesn’t it?  Frankly yes it does but like all new ideas it must pass the gauntlet of skeptics before it can find its place in the general marketplace.  Most have been pointing out that while this technique solves the problem of biomass is runs into problems of its own:

Pienkos said his calculations, based on information in Joule’s recent paper, indicate that though they eliminate biomass problems, their technology leaves relatively small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of water, producing a sort of “sheen.” They may not be dealing with biomass, but the company is facing complicated “engineering issues” in order to recover large amounts of its fuel efficiently, he said.

However I have a different problem with this sort of technology.  First of all I admit to not being an expert on the process but it would seem to me that while biofuels may solve one problem, removing us from the economic and political shackles of foreign oil, it does nothing to address the rather large elephant in the room of climate change.  If the cyanobacteria are truly producing hydrocarbons than how exactly will the end result be any different from what we have now.  The transportation sector is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and any attempt to address global climate change without addressing that fact is doomed from the start.  The article mentions using the CO2 emissions from power plants as a potential benefit but if the carbon is simply being released back into the atmosphere through tailpipes then I question whether there is a benefit at all.

This is my least favorite kind of post to write because when it comes right down to it I’m supportive of this kind of technology.  Used correctly it has the potential to be a powerful force for the kind of change we need to see if we want to prevent some of the serious problems were facing, not just climate change but the aforementioned ball and chain of foreign oil strangling our economic and political climate.  However we cannot be so proud of our own ingenuity that we become blind to what effects our creations will actually have on the world.

Will Climate Change Create Nations Without States December 6, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Predicting what effects climate change is going to have on the world can make even the most educated research feel a little bit like Nostradamus.  There are so many variables and so many ways in which they can interact that most of the time we really can’t start planning for disaster until it’s already happening.  Case in point, this story.

The short of it is that due to rising sea levels brought about by glacial melting and the like many island nations are in danger of becoming uninhabitable.  Though the threat of them sinking below the waves a la Atlantis is not in the near future the more pressing concerns are things like fresh water supplies and arable land.  Before too long many of these nations may face the possibility of being left without a home.

This presents an interesting dilemma.  Can a nation-state remain a functioning entity without solid ground underneath it?  This is not a problem we as a species have confronted before and are completely unprepared for.  Certainly states have vanished before but usually through conquest and revolution.  This problem calls into question the very concept of what constitutes a nation-state, an idea that has been around for centuries now, and will force us to question where political authority and national sovereignty are actually derived.  In addition there are issues with fishing rights and mineral wealth to be addressed not to mention the relatively mundane problem of where these people are going to live.

So what exactly will happen?  I foresee a few possibilities.

1) The people of the disappearing nations are absorbed into countries they take refuge in.  The nation loses it’s seat in the UN and rights to things like fisheries or minerals are handled through international negotiations with no regard for the original inhabitants.  My money’s on this one.

2) The people keep there status as a nation but not as a state.  They maintain rights to natural resources within there former territory even if they live somewhere else.  This situation, similar to the status of Native American tribes in the US, could happen but I doubt it.

3) The people remain a nation and a state.  They continue to have a functioning government and retain their seat in the UN.  Don’t count on it.

4) The people are placed under a new designation for societies displaced by the effects of climate change.  What this new designation actually will look like I cannot say but I would guess it would fall under the auspices of the UN and have some sort of protections for resource rights and things like that.  This one actually makes some sense to me but there are too many variables for me to say whether or not it’s likely.

Whatever the eventual outcome it seems likely that many of these people will be displaced.  Action against climate change is coming far too slowly and far too late to make any meaningful difference.  Don’t believe me, check the news surrounding the current summit in Cancun (hint: it’s depressing).  As many have correctly pointed out the necessary changes will be detrimental to short-term economic growth and individual nations have no current incentive to curb there greenhouse gas emissions if they believe other nations will not do the same.  Only an international governing body could produce the necessary changes but at this point in time that seems both unlikely to happen and likely to cause other problems.

At this point it seems like adaptation to a changing world is our best course of action.  I remain skeptical of geoengineering projects.  Once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back.  Perhaps these island nations will be our lantern in the darkness,  showing us how to chart our course in a changing world.