Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Clarke’s Third Law

Clarke’s third law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. If people know this law at all, they relate it to fiction, especially science fiction. But more and more I come to think of it also as being able to explain some events in the real world.

Climate science is so complicated, so based on statistics and models that few people understand, and so hard to demonstrate with experiments, that it fulfills Clarke’s criterion of being sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. In particular it is indistinguishable from the miracles and “acts of god” of religions. A catastrophic climate event, like a hurricane, is indistinguishable from an event caused by the “wrath of god”. Even a climate scientist can’t reliably predict those events, current science only tells us to expect more of these events as a result of global warming.

This gives climate science an aspect of doomsaying magic, and of religion: “Repent, sinners! Abandon your acts of gratuitous consumption of meat and fossil fuel, and the world might still be saved!” Some of the people talking about climate change end up being indistinguishable from high priests of some strange religious cult. And thus we shouldn’t be surprised that some people simply choose not to believe those climate change priests. After all, breaking several of the ten commandments doesn’t get people struck by lightning. And people quite like their gratuitous consumption, their steaks, their big cars, their airline travel holidays. Why give all of that up for a badly defined chance of less future doom? Especially if you don’t live in some oceanfront property or otherwise low ground, keeping up your consumption appears to be the safer bet.

As a scientist I am pretty convinced that climate change is real, that it is increasing the likelihood of catastrophic events, and that it may lead to rising ocean levels which might displace or kill a lot of people. But I am also still flying, still driving, and still eating meat. The economist in me calls this the tragedy of the commons. As I can’t even convince myself to lead the life of a minimalist, I also don’t believe it will be possible to convince everybody of the necessity of doing so. The scenario in which humanity manages to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius is extremely unlikely, in my opinion. While the doomsaying high-priests of climate change have my sympathy, I don’t plan to practice that particular religion. I would however advise you to quickly sell that oceanfront property and move further inland, if you can.

Is Belgium not at risk too? At least half of the country is quite low in respect to the current sea level...

I think that games like Fate of the World ( could clarify why climate change happens.
And this is how the world ends.

(Sell your sea front properties all you want, if the climate forecasts are accurate civilization won't survive.)
I think in short order, maybe even a decade, we will look back at this time like we look back at slavery; those who don't believe in climate change, much like those who were pro-slavery, will be look on in disbelieve and/or disgust. The big difference however is that unlike slavery, since this timeline is much shorter, and the internet has recorded so much, it won't be people talking about the shame of their grandparents owning slaves, or that rare photo of people cheering a lynching around a tree, it will be videos/posts of people being climate deniers and how foolish that was.

That said, I fully believe technology will bail out those who have the money to escape the worst of it, whole the vast majority who can't buy themselves out of the problems will suffer. Funny/sadly enough, the overlap between deniers and those who will suffer is pretty large, but that's the case with many things today (the poor in the south of the US voting for tax breaks for the 1%, railing against 'welfare', and then happily accepting an additional 12b in farmer welfare)
Oddly enough, I just finished reading John Green's "An Abundance of Katherines", in the back of which, because it's an old copy, is the pre-publication, promotional first chapter of Green's better-known "The Fault in Our Stars", which features a lengthy quote from Peter van Houten:

"“There will come a time, when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”"

Peter van Houten does not exist and never did but I pretty much worked that out for myself when I was the age of John Green's target audience.
I agree with Tobold, though I do keep a pretty small carbon footprint. I don't need or want most stuff that burns a lot.

Certainly emissions will not nearly be controlled to the more or less arbitrary targets that are pushed from time to time. There will certainly be a number of negative consequences, though at higher latitudes the net effects may often be beneficial. Rising sea levels will be inconvenient for most, though, given that most people live near the coast.

But there is zero existential threat to civilisation, in my opinion. Which is bad news for most of the rest of nature, whose main problem is us taking and changing their spaces. If other species had a vote, they would choose near-apocalyptic climate change - much worse than global warming will cause - if it would get rid of us.
Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is a rabid cleric of that religion.

I notice he lives at ground zero of the coming eco-pocolypse, Los Angeles.

The problem, of course, is even if the "Climate Change" clerics magically turn out to be right, so what? The laws of Thermodynamics trump Clark's laws all day long. There is no free energy, any religion based on the magic of free energy is a fraud.
Higher latitudes won't be spared. I live in Norway, and our agriculture quietly had a disastrous year in 2018 (worst drought in a century). We got through it by throwing money at it (both for feed from further south in Europe, which had their own drought btw, and by paying out to farmers), but still many farms are on the brink of bankruptcy. And this year might be as bad.
This is what happens when you treat Agriculture as if it's some kind of machine system where a set input will produce a set output.

We do the same thing in the US, we have the hubris to assume our "Super Advanced Technology Based Farming Systems" are magically immune to cycles in the weather, and we're wrong every time.

It's not Climate Change, it's Human Hubris and Stupidity. The fun thing we're doing now, here in the US, is drain aquifers like we don't care... Agriculture takes a LOT of water, and you can't just magic it about, it's either impossible to move, or very expensive to move. We're also pushing our agriculture past it's breaking point by trying to feed too many people, stupidly using food as fuel, and exporting it to other countries to produce profit for farmers. It's unsustainable.

It all comes down to the Industrial Age attitude of "Use technology to increase production, then assume that level of production can be maintained forever, because technology."
Except it isn't the "common man" who can do much about climate change. By far the worse polluters are private businesses and governments.

Getting rid of straws at Starbucks or getting more people to drive hybrids is only a drop in the bucket compared to private business and government pollution.

In America at least I dont see anything serious getting done about Climate Change until the boomer generation is dead and completely out of power. Private business has too much control of our political system to effect change on this issue at this time.
"In America at least I dont see anything serious getting done about Climate Change until the boomer generation is dead and completely out of power. Private business has too much control of our political system to effect change on this issue at this time."

And what do you expect "Private Business and Government" to do, exactly? What meaningful change can be exacted? For example, what... voluntarily stop using oil? HA HA HA HA! Civilization would be on it's knees in a month. The only 'solutions' being suggested are literally as Tobold says... "Indistinguishable from magic." The problem is, technology can't DO magic, which is why Arthur C. Clark was a WRITER, not an engineer. You can only push technology so far before you hit the wall of diminishing returns. And let's be clear, the usage has to be looked at in it's entirety, not just a small region. For example, it is theoretically possible to have a city that gets all of it's immediate energy needs from 'clean' mechanics, mostly hydro. All it needs is to be close to (Or monopolize) those sources and then offload all it's manufacturing and food production to other regions that it magically ignores while claiming it's a "Clean City." Those other areas (cough, China, for example.) then proceed to pollute the heck out of the planet because there is just no way to produce the things the city needs otherwise.

Well, let me tell you what would have to be done to remove dependence on oil, as there is no foreseeable replacement magic for it:

Plan 1: Nuke most oil producing areas into uselessness. Thus making it difficult to get more, and driving the cost of oil into the stratosphere, thus forcing a massive reduction in it's use. Clearly a stupid solution that would solve little.

Plan 2: Call 1-800-THANOS and get on their subscription plan where they come back every century and repeat the treatment. Demand for oil would go way down and stay down. Also a non-solution, as Thanos is a fictional character.

The only 'solution' is to let it drive off the cliff, try to save as much knowledge as possible, and hope we do better when it all resets. Of course, the best way to do THAT is selfishly make sure YOUR corner of the world is better prepared than the rest. Of course, it's also possible that "Climate Change" is actually bad science ginned up in a bogus computer model as a make work program for scientists paid for by political forces. Either way... it doesn't matter.
The thing that annoys me most about how climate change threats have been sold is this idea you referred to about the risks of rising sea levels.

The dangers aren't from the water covering things that used to be dry. Though that's certainly a big impact... the worst of the threat is what that will do to farming land, what that will do to the jobs in those areas, what that will do to refugee flows into less-affected areas, employment levels, underemployment, wage growth and consumer spending, how those areas under food/water-shortage will cope with the influx of refugees and migrants, the isolationist policies that will arise to keep the filthy have-nots out of higher ground for their sin of having chosen to be born in lower-lying countries, what that will do to trade, to taxation, to retail, to consumer confidence, to housing affordability, and so on and so forth.

The danger isn't the first domino that falls. It's the thousands of dominos after it. The sea levels won't kill us. The collective fucking freak-out and inability to deal, will have us kill each other.

Much like the 2 degrees to apocalypse temperature difference. It's too abstract. People think, "Two degrees is nothing, it's ten degrees colder now than it was a few months ago, two is nothing. Worst case, I get to wear shorts."

But that's not the impact that scientists warn about. It's about the first domino to fall: ice melting. Ocean temperatures.

And people don't give a shit about ocean temperatures, because they don't realize that ice melts control ocean current temperatures, and ocean current temperatures are what control air pressure systems, and that air pressure systems are what control where rain falls, and where rain falls controls where people can live, and where people can live controls... ALL OF HUMAN CIVILIZATION.

Not to mention all the dominos that are tipping in different streams... losing access to drinking water from dams no longer getting filled and flooding of populated areas or farms that were previously dry is one thing. But the other thing that happens with changes in ocean temperatures is mass ecological havoc. Scoff at the fragility of sea life, but it IS fragile and changes in temperatures will kill vast swathes of sea-life. It will alter the oceans forever. Algae blooms may quite possibly spread across entire seas, releasing unprecedented volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, escalating the warming process even faster than projected.

Forget about the economies that rely on fishing them, right at a time when - coincidentally - all established agriculture is getting fucked by weather, compounding the existing food shortage issues and exarcerbating all the above problems.

The goal was always to stop the first dominos from falling, the first snowballs from gaining speed, size, and momentum.

I used to work with a few climate scientists in my last role, but the government centre they were working for was gutted and shut down. Around that time, most of them fucked off to Norway or Tasmania to raise their families in the places they thought they had the best chance of surviving what they spent every day trying to warn about, being ignored, because it doesn't look good for the pocket-books of the wealthy to actually do something, and investors only care about next quarter projections.

Fact is, we're doomed. Might as well play some video games, have some sex, eat well, and live it up before the shitfight happens.


Algae blooms may quite possibly spread across entire seas, releasing unprecedented volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, escalating the warming process even faster than projected.

Algae blooms trap rather then release carbon though - that's the entire point of "rogue geoengineering" by seeding oceans with iron.

"Runaway" scenarios are something like "clathrate gun" hypothesis (and even that is unlikely really).

Plenty of species thrive with higher carbon. More algae -> more food for algae-eaters -> more food for algae-eater eaters and so on.

Some species will die off; others might shoot to unprecedented population levels that would be unsustainable at previous carbon and temperature levels.
> As a scientist I am pretty convinced that climate change is real

But are you convinced that any of the current actions will actually slow down or even stop the climate change?

Are you convinced that we can feed 8 billion people and keep them warm without causing climate change? (All while migrating billions from a very low CO2 lifestyle to a much higher one?)

The question if climate change exists or not is irrelevant. The relevant question is if we're willing to take the required actions to stop it. There won't be a world with 8 billion people and no climate change compared to 1990.
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I agree. You cannot convince everyone of living a minimalist life. I would not do it myself. However, maybe we can reduce the stop it from worsening through some of our actions.
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