% fortune -ae paul murphy

Politics, ET, and Global Warming

A talkback contributor on my August 4th story pretending that Scott McNealy's comments about Intel space heaters applied to the global warming issue told me rather nicely to "Keep the tech, lose the politics, please."

It's good advice, but impossible to accept because politics and technology are inextricably linked and global warming, as it happens, provides a first class illustration.

There's little reason to doubt the reality of some global warming, the problem is that some people see political advantage in exaggerating the effect and claiming direct human responsibility. In fact most political commentators in Canada and western Europe spend a lot of time and effort ensuring that their audience never wavers in its view that global warming is real, catastrophic in its impacts, and entirely the fault of the irresponsible American addiction to the SUV - while many of their American colleagues have seized on the issue as another handy platform for Bush bashing.

From a science perspective, however, absolute human responsibility for global warming is obvious nonsense in light of earlier climate change on earth and parallel temperature changes apparently happening now on Mars and Pluto.

The question of human responsibility is therefore one of degree and the evidence needed to scale that is, as yet, probably unavailable and certainly unpublished.

Notice, however, that the twin questions of whether something should be done to limit or reverse warming and, if so, what? are independent of the issue of actual causation. No one knows why worldwide climate change has happened in the past, but everyone knows that the proximate cause of what we think of as global warming is greater atmospheric heat, and therefore water, retention. As a corolary that also means we know what can be done to reduce it -and we know this without needing to know anything about either the desireability or the root causes of the effect.

It should be possible, for example, to build or modify coal based power plants to intentionally inject "tuned particulates" into the upper atmosphere, thereby reducing insolation and causing global cooling.

The downside, of course, would be that the effect would be uncontrollable at any but the most aggregate level -and that we couldn't easily turn it off if we notice the other planets, a year or two later, starting to cool. In other words, there are obvious solutions, but grabbing one without understanding the problem might turn out to be even dumber than the anti-nuclear protests of the seventies that led to the carbon economy that's supposedly the cause of global warming.

Fortunately there is a far better technical solution on the horizon, one that's unambigiously desireable but nicely illustrates how closely technology and politics are linked.

The earth has about 509,600,000 square kilometers of surface area, roughly 71% of it water. Extend our area of interest 3 KM down and 12 up, and we have about 7.644 billion cubic kilometers within which climate is of direct importance to us. Heat and material transfer functions for most of the materials found in that volume are well understood, thus there are no theoretical impediments to modelling the effect an isolated increase or decrease in solar energy input to a cone cut across these cubes will have on the cubes themselves and thence on their neighbours.

There are a few practical impediments to extending that model to cover the globe, but the theory's all there. What's missing is the both the data and the computing capacity needed. Make those available, however, and it should be possible to fully predict the effect in San Francisco next year of man made cloud cover in Beijing this year.

Getting the data is a matter of being willing to spend the money -the lack of surface differentiation in much of the globe coupled with the availability of space based sensors make that much less challenging or expensive than it might appear. The problem has been that the combination of processing power and storage needed has not been available at any price - but they soon will be. Both IBM's grid on a chip and Sun's SMP on a chip offer the potential to do this: both directly and in terms of the computation needed to enable data reduction to the point that the required storage becomes practical.

That threshold of feasibility probably won't be crossed this year, but it almost certainly will happen within three or four years.

When possibility becomes reality the presure for change will mount, because it's long been possible to directly influence at least the amount of solar energy delivered to selected cones using technologies like orbiting solar mirrors to differentially shade or heat some areas.

On the positive side, that means humanity could choose trees in the Sahara over floods in Bangladesh - perhaps ultimately achieving a world wide energy distribution that covers the one third of our land surface now arid with cool new vegetation.

Sounds like something should be pursued: pedal to the metal, right?

Well, yes; but now consider the politics. Think about the technology's weapons potential, both in terms of war and in terms of trade - and then what it could mean economically to turn deserts into highly productive farm country.

Recognize that more than two thirds of the UN's members are dictatorships, more than 75% of the world's billions have no voice in the political decisions governing them. Mass starvation, armies of refugees, and the chaos and hatreds bred in long term refugee camps are standard tools of oppression and exploitation among Stalin's successors in Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

Does anyone think the world ready for the co-operative responsibilities of long term global climate control? I certainly don't - but we weren't ready for nuclear power or the microchip either, but where technology led the way the politicians eventually followed.

A footnote:

When I started to write this, I wanted to build on the McNealy piece in terms of the eggs are bad for you, eggs are good for you, history of popular "science" as seized on by people with fundamentally unrelated political agendas - but in writing it I stumbled onto a thought about something else.

It's vaguely possible that Fermi's missing friends simply don't see anyone here to talk to; i.e. that they have contact criteria based on the demonstrated ability to marshall global will and co-operation. That doesn't exist yet, but successful operation of a global climate control system would be the perfect, and possibly inevitable, demonstration of the cultural maturity required to handle contact.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.