Ecology and Economics: Betting against science

Everything living depends on ecology. The planet’s hydrologic cycles provide the water that we use for agriculture and industry. Everything you’ve eaten today depended upon soil ecologies, the carbon cycle–driven largely by photosynthesis, insects, and countless other ecosystem processes. Consider, for example, the things made of wood around you right now. The trees that conjured it out of the air, flourish according the rules and interplay of dynamic complex ecological systems. We survive on the backs bacteria that make up the necessary ecosystem of our gut (You are from three to six pounds of bacteria–there are more bacteria cells in your body than those that make up your body).

In the soil, processes necessary for whatever crops you’ve eaten today, thrive nematodes, insects like springtails, and a complex array of fungi, bacteria, and molds. Without these, the soil is sterile and lifeless, and plants cannot extract the nutrients they need.

Did you enjoy any apples, walnuts, cherries, pears, almonds, peaches, blackberries (and about any berry you can name) this week? Did you enjoy sesame on your buns, or alfalfa fed beef in your bun? Did you put an onion on it? If you answered yes to any of these (and I could make a list ten times as long) then you’ve depended on bees to pollinate these plants that are all dependent on bees to reproduce. (In California bees provide 18 Billion dollars a year in pollination services).

What about water? Did you enjoy any water from mountain streams? The plants, trees, and other things helped pull the water from the clouds, moderate its flow into aquifers so it doesn’t run off the surface in short lived torrents.

Does the economy depend on any of these ecosystem services? In every way. Economic models often have a big input box that says, “Natural Resources” from which everything gets started. Then it’s ignored as if it’s a given that requires nary a thought. There are arguments being made that we cannot afford economically the cost of worrying about climate change. Most of the denial industry is pushed by those with huge incentives against changing our behavior. In a recent book, historian of science Naomi Oreskes (University of California San Diego) has looked closely at how the denial industry in the US has been funded and promoted. Yes follow the money (and if you think I’m getting rich doing this, you will receive a belly laugh from my family). It’s ironic that the only two people, Fred Singer and Fred Seitz who are high profiles deniers, are also former payees of the tobacco industry. We know how honest those claims to tobacco safety turned out.

But I am distracted. Can we afford to pay for trying to stop global warming? We will pay one way or the other. The cost of not doing anything will in the end be the most catastrophic decision we could make if climate change is real. So we see the evidence (scientific, not internet-based, talk radio-based nonsense, as I say over and over, look at the science being published it’s running 1:1000 in favor of anthropogenic climate change being real) coming from everywhere we look, actual temperature measurements, melting glaciers and melting permafrost, ocean acidification, and redistribution of long established species. We ignore this at our peril.

Economies are dependent on ecosystem services. Cultures that ignore this end up collapsing (see Jared Diamond’s Collapse for a closer look at this). We call this supervenience. Economics is completely underwritten by ecologies.

To make the argument that economies are not influenced from ecosystems and changes in climate, you are in effect arguing that they are strongly buffered, meaning that changes in ecology or ecosystems have little effect in the emergent economy. We know this is false. For example, the increase in moisture from the oceans caused freak blizzards in the East this year. Note, I’m not claiming this was caused by climate change; weather and climate are two different things. Weather depends of climate, but there have always been freak storms and assigning cause is practically impossible. However, what if such storms became the norm under a new climate regime? That storm cost billions of dollars to the economy. For example, DC was effectively shut down. Certainly, then Washington DC, if this continued because weather patterns had altered under a new climate regime, would have to invest more heavily in snow removal equipment, infrastructure changes, and other things. People would have to make adjustments to their way of life like buying snow shovels and all weather tires.

The point is that the assumption that with global warming it’s going to be a little warmer everywhere (or colder weather depending on where you live, for example, Northern California and the North West may get wetter and cooler), without other changes in weather patterns, is just wrong. We are pumping energy into a chaotic system. This can mean complete changes in global climate. Do we take the risk that these climate changes might be good so we do nothing? It’s a bad bet. If you think it won’t hurt the economy, please enter the scientific fray and argue how these major ecosystem upheavals (that we are already seeing) are not going to affect the economy. Peer review please.

As a recent article in the Atlantic pointed out, global warming may economically benefit some. People in Greenland are quite pleased with the effects by all reports (see NG story linked below). If Utah get’s wetter winters snow companies my have longer seasons, or they could dry up, no one knows, but the models are calling for drought. And that is the danger. While we can predict to some extent the global increases in temperature and some more large scale effects like melting glaciers (worldwide), ice-free summers in the polar North, ocean acidification, what’s going to happen to local weather patterns is hard to predict. If the gulf stream pump fails because of the melting ice in Greenland (and make no mistake it’s melting in a big way check out this in National Geographic), Europe could be plunged into an ice age. Stronger more frequent hurricanes from the warmer oceans, costal flooding, melting permafrost, could all become part of reality, but how these actually affect things is unknown. In Africa, the long-term drought has caused crop failures, and the retreat of grasslands, and reduced ability to grow crops. What does an inability to grow crops portent for a country? Does widespread poverty increase political stability? I think not. The point is that no one knows what a new climate will do to the weather, and that does affect economies.

We know that given certain carbon inputs the planet will warm. This is as well understood as any science we have. But given the breathtaking uncertainties to the ecological changes this could induce, it would be unethical to carry on as usual. We buy insurance on the presumption of taking care of uncertainties. Common sense says we act to mitigate the uncertainties. The crowd promoting that we wait until we ‘know’ that the planet is warming before we act is like the doctor who says, “All the laboratory tests, from many independent labs, say you have cancer, we have 50 independent models (representing the best modeling practices we know) that say this cancer will kill you if we don’t act now, but hey your lifestyle will likely suffer (maybe, maybe not) if we are wrong, and well, there’s no way to be 100% sure, this is science after all, so let’s just put off treatment until we are sure. OK?”

Our grandchildren are likely to condemn this as the most foolish generation in world history. The generation that stood on the cusp of when something could have been done about planetary change, but clutched their economy so tight, they did nothing. They will end up paying for it. You’d better make sure your arguments that we should do nothing are right, because their world depends on it. And don’t forget you are betting against all of modern science.

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14 comments to Ecology and Economics: Betting against science

  • Stan

    I’m glad to hear that now there is at least some conflicting data showing most American’s believe global warming is real. I would really like to see our government get a handle on spending, but I fear the impending swing this November will include even more politicians that deny the science and stifle environmental concerns.

  • Rich

    Very good summary of my fears! Why I’m grateful to folks in the public eye like E. O. Wilson, who seems tireless in championing ecology.

  • For what it’s worth, the Pentagon is worried about climate change too.

  • I think you’re worrying too much. If global climate changes actually began occurring, I’m sure humans would rise to the occasion and solve the problem, just as we have been so successful at plugging the oil leak in the Gulf. Oh…wait!

  • Tirian

    I’m not against climate change action such as encouraging green tech, switching over to renewable fuels, etc… But politicians (liberal, republican, and international) have been using this as a tactic to win support for their next elections and to fund their own agendas.

  • Owen

    I was just going to mention the Pentagon too. I’m not going to spend time finding links, but plenty of global businesses are figuring climate change into their long term forecasts as well. The smart money is on science because the alternative is…what? Nothing.

  • Geoff, that well was rated at an expected 3-4k barrels a day. It is leaking about 40k to 50k barrels a day.

    45k barrels at $70.00 a barrel means $1,231,875,000 more revenue a year than they expected from the well. No procedure for stopping the leak that means shutting down the well is going to succeed until they have an alternate system in place that results in the oil flow continuing.

    If a stop program had worked, how long before they get to have the well start working again? 5 years? A five year delay is six billion dollars of revenue delayed.

    If they are lucky.

    Part of the problem is who will have to sacrifice what. The financial collapse of the western democracies shows a huge unwillingness to accept sacrifice. Telling China and India to accept economic collapse in order to support climate modification is a hard sell.

    What we need is some trustworthy models, untouched by fraud and deceit, that model the cost benefit approach, if you really hope to achieve what you are seeking.

    What are the risks? What are the alternatives? Who starves as a result, who loses their pensions?

    In the current economic structure, I’m not sure anyone in Europe keeps a retirement pension in ten years without any additional economic strain from climate change (or from attempting to avoid climate change).

    It is a real mess. Carbon taxes, for now, would be a good start (and would address ocean acidification) but who knows.

    If everything was taxed based on its carbon footprint (so that replacing products with exports meant that they had a carbon tax at the border to keep it from all just being shipped to China), it would do something.

    But, ouch.

  • John Mansfield

    SteveP, I followed your link here from Millennial Star. I’m curious about the idea that the planet’s wide variety of climates are in an optimum configuration currently; some places will become warmer, though still cooler than much of the present-day sphere, some will be colder or wetter, though not more extreme than what could be found somewhere else right now, and this will all be a bad thing almost everywhere.

  • Not to nitpick (and I know about your propensity to misspell things) but it should be hydrologic cycle, not hydraulic cycle.

    I’m curious about the idea that the planet’s wide variety of climates are in an optimum configuration currently

    It’s not that the climates are optimum; it’s that the distribution of ecologies is optimised for the current configuration of climates. If you change the distribution of wet/dry/warm/cool, ecosystems will shift. Reconstructing those shifts in the ranges of sensitive plants and animals is one of the ways climates have been reconstructed by scientists. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing–I’m sure few people mind a few extra days added to the growing season–as long as 1) the shifts happen slowly enough for ecosystems to move and 2) you don’t screw something else up.

    Plants, especially trees, can take decades to shift ranges. If climate change happens so quickly the optimal climate shifts beyond the possible range of certain key tree species, that will have a huge impact.

    This example gets tossed out a lot, and I’m sure SteveP has others, but bark beetles are an example of something getting mucked up by climate change. The few days of extra growing season seen in much of the west is just long enough that bark beetles get an extra generation in, which has upset the equilibrium between bark beetles and pine trees, leading to the destruction of millions upon millions of trees.

  • Thanks Kristine! Right on the money with your answer.

    I have to keep reminding people, my spelling inability runs deep. But corrections are always appreciated!

  • Tim

    I think another factor that some might find more convincing about changing climates is that our economies and cultures will also have to adapt. Take the ski industry in Utah, for example. If the climate in Utah increase or snowfall decreases, it could have a very negative impact on a huge Utah industry. Not to mention the impact of less snowfall on agriculture, etc.

  • John Mansfield

    Thanks for a thoughtful response, Kristine N. I can see how losing their corner of the world could be a problem for niche species, but does anyone expect climate change to occur faster than a decades-long scale? Has anyone tallied possible extinctions under a fast-warming regime compared with what we would have expected for a 21st Century without warming?

    On the economic side, my feeling for the issue was written a few years ago. (“Lake Mead and Me”) Climate change seems like a small thing compared with the 19th Century changes our great-grandparents lived through. Quoting myself, “My maternal grandmother was born in a town which, like so many in my home state, no longer exists.” I can count four houses I’ve lived in that no longer exist, one burned down, and three demolished. My mother and her brother burned down their childhood home, and a church was built over the removed remains. Last year that church also burned down. All is grass.

  • Jack

    I’ve wondered about that too, John. What has been the risk of extinction to any number of species merely by putting up fences? Or digging canals? Or building highways? What has been the effect of major land development or the build of dams and reservoirs on indigenous species? And how would the displacement of such compare with the kinds of migration that are supposedly caused by climate change?

  • kreed

    Great series. I’m writing this from the Philippines after a fabulous dive on coral reefs. To get to the reefs, I had to dive through a skim of trash and oil on the surface. I removed a plastic bag covering a square foot of coral. If left there, that coral would probably have died.

    I like the concept that economics seeks to optimize on ecosystem potential. The problem lies in predicting how the economy will react to the the changes we’re now beginning to detect. Since we can’t even predict day to day stock market trends, there is no hope of predicting what will happen. But we can make educated guesses.

    Jettboy, of a previous thread, states that he simply doesn’t believe science and waits for a prophet to tell him what to think. My problem is that really, Jettboy is waiting for Rush Limbaugh to tell him what to think.

    I’ve been doing simulation modeling all my life, starting with some simple ecosystem models back in the day. Simulation can’t tell us what will happen, but it is a good method for organizing what we currently know and what MIGHT happen given those basis assumptions. And the simulation models are scary.

    If Utah does become drier and the Wasatch Front can no longer sustain its current population, the JettBoys of the world will blame science for not warning us.

    We can’t win.

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