7 June 2017

The epistemology of carbon atoms

Posted by Callan Bentley

I have some questions for you. You answers determine whether you’re ready to begin talking about climate policy.

  • Do you believe that carbon atoms exist?
  • Do you believe that carbon can bond to oxygen?
  • Do you believe that the bonding of carbon to oxygen is an exothermic reaction?
  • Do you believe that exothermic reactions make heat?
  • Do you believe that heat can be used to boil water?
  • Do you believe that boiling water can be used to turn a turbine?
  • Do you believe that the turning of a turbine can make electricity?
  • Do you believe that people can utilize electricity?
  • Do you believe therefore that people are motivated to find carbon atoms and react them with oxygen?
  • Do you believe the carbon atoms continue to exist after the electricity is generated?
  • Do you believe that the accepted method of disposing of the oxidized carbon atoms is to throw them into the air?
  • Do you believe that the oxidized carbon atoms in the air tend to stay there for a while?
  • Do you believe that these carbon atoms bonded to two oxygen atoms (CO2 molecules) are invisible to visible wavelengths of light, but opaque to infrared light with wavelengths 2.7, 4.3 and 15 micrometers (┬ÁM)?
  • Do you believe that CO2 having this selectively transparent property results in a finite positive quantity of energy remaining on Earth rather than being radiated to space?
  • Do you believe that heat is the agent of temperature change?
  • Do you believe that a sufficiently large finite positive quantity of extra energy remaining on Earth will raise its average temperature?
  • Do you believe that a higher global temperature could have negative effects?

Your answer to all of these questions should be “yes.” If it were not so, your beliefs would run counter to what we have verified about the physics and chemistry of the Earth system.

Finding yourself at odds with physics and chemistry is a bit unsettling. You might ask yourself why you should have such a state of mind.

You might ask yourself, “What would it take for me to change my mind on these questions?”

My list of questions is incomplete. I haven’t specified the size of the “sufficiently larger finite positive quantity of extra energy.” I haven’t indicated the level of the increase of the planet’s average temperature where negative effects become negative enough to matter in the grand scheme of things.

And there are other questions to be asked at the end, like

  • Do you believe that a higher global temperature could have positive effects?
  • Do you believe that policies exist for reducing average global temperature that might be a boon for society?
  • Do you believe that policies exist for reducing average global temperature that might be a cost for society?

Again: yes, yes, yes.

These sorts of binary queries help frame a survey of possibilities for the future. Our goal is to get to the point where we can then ask some more open-ended questions, like

  • Do the positives outweigh the negatives, balance them precisely, or do the negatives outweigh the positives?
  • Do the answers to the previous question apply equally to all people? To all ecosystems?
  • How much should we pay per year to keep some of that oxidized carbon out of the air?
  • Where are we going to put it?
  • What strategies would be wise to prevent harm to ecosystems as a result of the oxidized carbon we opt to leave in the air?
  • What strategies would be wise to prevent harm to humans as a result of the oxidized carbon we opt to leave in the air?
  • Which humans will we prioritize protecting?
  • Which negative effects demand the greatest attention to ameliorate?
  • Which positive effects should be most celebrated?
  • Would inducing global cooling have negative effects commensurate with the magnitude of negative effects induced by global warming?
  • What’s the ideal average global temperature to shoot for?
  • How comfortable should we get pulling levers and steering in the planetary “driver’s seat”?

With these sorts of qualitative considerations, we venture into the realm of policy decisions. Once social priorities and economic implications are added in, the situation’s true complexity emerges. Science can help inform the answers, but it’s no longer the exclusive arbiter of valid answers. The initial chain of “yes” facts establishes the situation in which our species finds itself, on this, the only planet it has ever inhabited. We all have to get to that point before we start talking about policy options. Science establishes our understanding of the situation; no politics need be applied. The realm of politics should be focused on the squishier third group of open-ended questions.

Somehow the initial chain of questions have also been politicized. It strikes me as bizarre that this is so. Do I really have to ask “do you believe in carbon atoms?” and then lead a skeptic by the nose through a chain of “yes”s? The more interesting stuff is contained in the messy third set of questions. That’s the realm Oliver Morton explores in The Planet Remade, which you should read if you have any curiosity about the human-influenced future of the planet Earth. That’s the realm where our society’s attention should be focused. We need to get to a point where we can discuss those questions in a mature, honest way.