An Artificial Distinction
April 9, 2009, 11:46 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

You cannot go against nature
Because if you do
Go against nature
That’s part of nature too

–Love and Rockets

I’ve always been bothered by the distinction most people make between things that are “natural” and things that are supposedly “artificial”. The distinction has always struck me as – well – artificial.

For example one guy at work chastised another guy at work for taking “artificial”, “synthetic” fish oil pills. “I only take natural fish oil”, he said with all the smarm and self-satisfaction of a 4 year old who just made a big poopy. He was actually proud of this! And then he literally said to the other guy that the other guy was “going to die”. I wanted to pull my hair out. Did he have an argument, or any facts at all, for why his “natural” oil was better than the synthetic kind? No.

A common example occurs in global warming debates. The CO2 produced by human activity is declared “artificial” and so, the idea of regulating/restricting CO2 output becomes not any kind of artificial restriction, but just putting things back in their “natural” form. The implicit idea is that there’s a certain CO2 concentration which is “natural” (and therefore optimal?) and that humans have put things out of supposed “balance” by (apparently) causing that concentration to go higher than it would be in the absence of humans. Along these lines, the pragmatic reasons to potentially care about CO2 – because it might increase global warming, which might be bad for us – get all mixed up and intertwined with a kind of quasi-religious moralism about human activity that makes rational debate nearly impossible.

And that annoys me.

But yesterday I saw an example in the opposite direction. This article makes a big deal about President Obama looking at “climate engineering”, “climate tinkering”, characterizing it as an “extreme option”. And numerous right-wing bloggers have reacted by painting this as extreme if not scary. (Adler at Volokh: “Is Geoengineering on the Table?”)


I’ll just repeat what I said over there: Of course “geoengineering” is “on the table”. That’s what the whole conversation has always been about!

What is “Let’s consciously control/reduce how much CO2 output we create with the goal of making the future climate such-and-such”, if not geoengineering? This topic has always been about geoengineering. Geoengineering has always been “on the table”. What do you think Al Gore has been talking about all this time?

The only thing perhaps ‘new’, or at least different, in that news story are the methods being proposed to enable the geoengineering. Al Gore only has one method in mind (controlling CO2 output). I guess this method doesn’t have the flavor of ‘engineering’ because it would involve mostly taxes and social controls and so is generally more lo-tech than, say, putting reflective nanoparticles in the atmosphere, or space-bound mirrors, or whatever. But it’s still geoengineering! Al Gore has a desired future climate path, he thinks he knows how to get there, and he wants the power to tinker with that input to create the output that (he thinks) will result! Engineering.

Now, personally, I’m glad to see other methods suggested and thrown out there. Having more methods is better than having fewer. (For one thing, we may find a cheaper and more effective method than the one Al Gore favors – which would certainly be… interesting.) But let’s knock off this idea that there’s some huge difference between the sort of geoengineering cited in that article, and the sort of geoengineering already favored by every Soccer Mom and college kid in the country, i.e., Al Gore’s. There isn’t.

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8 Comments so far
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The problem with Obama’s idea is the law of unintended consequences, don’t you think?

Check out George Carlin on Global Warming (he even makes the Love and Rockets point in this video):

I like what Dennis Miller says; if people think oil is such a bad thing, then they should support the use of SUV’s because, that way, we’ll burn through the oil quicker, and therefore force a new technology to come to the fore that much quicker.

In times like ours, all the best wisdom comes from comedians.

Like Hunter S. Thompson said: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Comment by Pastorius


Well there would certainly be unintended consequences from this or any scheme. (That includes carbon-emission restrictions.) I don’t endorse us using this scheme per se, especially at present given our lack of knowledge; what I do endorse is exploring and testing the idea, and others. If only as a counterweight to AGW alarmists who speak and think as if the only possible means of combating global warming is to restrict CO2.

Re: Dennis Miller is insightful, isn’t he? I hadn’t actually thought of the SUV angle, but I think he’s right.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

The problem with human created CO2 is not that the CO2 is less natural, but that it is sufficiently excessive that it is warming the climate. And the most significant problem with warming the earth is that the climate is unstable, or chaotic if you prefer. A small increase in global temperatures can change global weather patterns that we have relied on for many decades, including changes that will seriously injure food supply. In particular, global warming may l turn previously good farming areas into desserts, creating starvation and lack of available water in different countries.

Geoengineering may help with global warming, but it may do so by creating instabilities for other reasons.

It’s easy to live with temperatures in your local environment increasing by a degree, all other things staying about the same. It is not so easy if your environment turns into a desert.

Comment by jimorlin

Let’s say I agree that (1) because of CO2, (2) the climate is going to warm, and that (3) this will be bad for us. The problem before us then is (2)+(3). ((1) is not relevant per se. (1), by itself, is not a problem.) The question is how best to remedy (2)+(3).

There is no a priori reason to believe that the answer necessarily involves reversing (1). Let’s say you kick a ball down a hill and it starts rolling. Will pulling your leg backwards to reverse the kick bring the ball back up that hill?

Maybe AGW is not like that. But maybe it is. I don’t know. (Neither do you, probably.) It’s true that according to the AGW theory (assuming, again, that I believe it), reducing CO2 output should slow warming. But by how much? I envision evaluating various approaches neutrally, on a “dollars-spent-per-degree-reduction-from-current-projections” basis. (The “dollars-spent” calc would have to encompass EVERYTHING, of course, which would be nearly impossible to unravel and project, but stay with me.) There’s no a priori reason to think that “restrict CO2 output” come out the best method in such a comparison. It might, but my point is just that “restrict CO2″ needs to be evaluated on an equal footing along with every other method.

You violate this principle, and illustrate my point, when you speak about “geoengineering” as if it is distinct from “restrict CO2″, which you treat as something like a default approach. Restricting CO2 output is simply one form of geoengineering! You further say the climate is chaotic and are aware of potential instabilities, but ignore the fact that the restrict-CO2 approach could cause instabilities and unintended consequences as well. (Ever hear of “hysteresis”? What about political, social and economic consequences?)

Why do you think it can’t, or at least, ignore the possibility? Precisely because you implicitly make the artificial distinction I’m referring to. Best,

Comment by Sonic Charmer

Actually, reducing the level of CO2 emissions won’t slow global warming, as I understand it. It will slow the growth in global warming; that is, it will decrease the acceleration. Taking your foot off the accelerator is usually stabilizing, not destabilizing. But one never knows for sure since the climate is impossible to predict due to its chaotic nature.

Scientists are also considering more radical solutions, such as adding particulates to the air so as to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth. I view this type of solution as inherently different and less predictable than reducing the growth in CO2, although both may fall under the umbrella “geoengineering.”

I was unfamiliar with the term “hysteresis” and am glad to know it now.

Comment by jimorlin

I recognize that you view the one sort of ‘geoengineering’ as ‘inherently different’ than the other. The point of my post was that this is an artificial distinction to make and that they both should be treated on equal footing, as proposed solutions to a purported problem. They should be evaluated together, on the same basis, by the same metric. I wonder if you actually disagree with the previous sentence – probably not. Well, I claim that treating one as the ‘default’, or ‘more natural’, or ‘more predictable’ method gets in the way of the sober analysis that ought to be done, because it creates a bias towards try-to-reduce-CO2 that is, fundamentally, artificial.

Your comment about stabilizing makes sense if the ‘accelerator’ metaphor, rather than (say) my ball-kicked-down-a-hill metaphor, is the more accurate one. It may or may not be. I understand that CO2 is thought to increase the temp growth rate. But note that by the AGW alarmists’ own theory, CO2 participates in a feedback loop. It is untenable to believe in this feedback loop, i.e. to believe in the global warming mechanism, and yet still compare it to a car’s accelerator, which involves no such feedback I’m aware of.

Another issue is that whether the reduce-CO2 approach is ‘stabilizing’ involves far more factors than the purely physical system in isolation, keeping all else equal. This is what I was trying to get at by mentioning political/social/economic consequences. What if the regulations cause a mass switch to [such-and-such] energy method, which, we later find out, has [such-and-such bad side effect] of its own, that is much worse than a greenhouse-effect warming tendency? Suddenly the effort was not so ‘stabilizing’. What if the regulations backfire due to black-market, regulatory-arbitrage, and other natural human responses, so e.g. a ton of coal plants end up getting opened in North Korea or somewhere out of reach of the regulations, and the net result is an increase in CO2? To stick with your metaphor: suppose we can’t, physically speaking, take our foot up off the pedal without our knee hitting something else bad, or even just another accelerator?

Finally, it’s certainly interesting that you claim to believe that ‘the climate is impossible to predict due to its chaotic nature’. I find this stated belief difficult to square with a simultaneous claim that we ought to restrict CO2 output to achieve some desired climate – which, after all, you can’t even know would be the outcome, if the climate is ‘impossible to predict’. Right? If I take that statement of yours to heart I’m afraid I’m left with no reason whatsoever to pay attention to AGW alarmism at all.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

Your philosophy seems to be “the world is uncertain; there are no guarantees; so why do anything to try to improve matters?” It’s a philosophy that leads to bad outcomes on a regular basis. I believe in going with the odds, knowing full well that it requires lots of difficult judgments, and lots of mistakes will be made; but on average it is far better than doing nothing.

The earth’s climate is chaotic, but it has long term trends. Just as the weather in most locations is predictable for several days but not several weeks, the earth’s climate is (by and large) relatively stable over decades and longer. Reducing CO2 is a very sensible way of trying to keep the climate stable for much longer than the current trends.

Comment by jimorlin

Clearly you have misunderstood me, my apologies for not explaining myself better. But first, I’m not the one who said the climate is ‘impossible to predict’, you were (though you’ve now clarified, and of course I agree with your clarification). Second, I’m not saying ‘why do anything to improve matters’ – quite the contrary, I’m just saying if there really is a problem looming, then all potential options to improve matters need to be on the table and evaluated equally (which imperative is hindered by this artificial distinction between ‘reduce-CO2′ and ‘geoengineering’).

My bottom line is that reducing CO2 may as you say be sensible, or not, but if so, such a conclusion should be based on a real and full and objective cost-benefit analysis, not on metaphors involving car accelerators and possibly misleading intuitions about what is ‘stabilizing’ vs what isn’t, and certainly not on quasi-moral considerations such as what is ‘natural’ vs what isn’t (which I realize is not part of your thinking here, but is part of the thinking of many). Best,

Comment by Sonic Charmer

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