Thursday, 6 June 2013

I wonder what happens if ...

Sometimes the old joke of the guy who pushes a button, pulls a thread or opens a door/cupboard/trapdoor with the words "I wonder what will happen ..." and releases something completely unstoppable and unintended, has a counterpart in real life. I can think of plenty of occasions where I have touched something, pulled something, or opened something only to find myself waist deep in trouble, and it seems that as a species we simply can't resist this particular urge to "try something". The good ol' law of unintended consequences can really bite sometimes. Often leaving you in a far worse situation than you started with.

When you start to mess around with a very complex natural system you really don't fully understand, then the potential for the law of unintended consequences to kick in really takes off. I was reminded of this yesterday when I came across a new "paper" on increased rainfall in industrialised areas. The researchers have found a link to the reduction of pollutants in the atmosphere. Yup, cleaner air means more rain falling over cities and towns. But another paper, published a year or so ago, identified that places where the roofs of buildings had been painted white - to reflect the sunlight back and increase 'reflectance of Infrared radiation' had also caused rainfalls in this cities to decrease.

When you think back to the 1970s, the problem then being attacked vigorously by the same group of activists and scientists was 'acid rain'. Now that was a very real problem, although, in reality, the changes of the "ph" values involved were small, it affected tree growth, aquatic life in streams and lakes and eroded buildings. So various "Clean Air" laws were rushed into place to reduce the Sulphur Dioxide emissions from industry commerce and transport. Great, acid rain was brought under control, but it changed the clouds being formed in the atmosphere ever so slightly as well. Instead of the shiny 'white' and highly reflective clouds the SO2 created, we got slightly less reflective and more heat absorbent cloud formations. Oops. I've often wondered whether that is really what triggered the "Global Warming" we've seen (according to some) since 1979.

As some of my readers know, I'm a lover of science fiction, and particularly enjoyed reading Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clark and Isaac Asimov. One story that recently came to mind as I listened to yet another debate about "Klimawandel" on the television between earnest Greens and supporters and a group of scientists who were trying to explain the extent of mankind's ignorance of the complexities of the global ecosystem (without actually admitting they don't know ...) concerned interstellar travel. I think it was by Clark, and it concerned a lone spaceman coping with a voyage on an old freighter spaceship. His problems with the ship's systems were magnified by the fact that the "environmental system" was an old one that relied on carrying around a small "greensward" with plants supposed to purify the atmosphere.

At various times it had been found necessary to introduce various insects to pollinate the plants or control their proliferation and spread, then it had become necessary to introduce birds to control the insects, then animals to control the birds and ... Finally one is reading of the intrepid spaceman dealing with animals swanning about in zero-gravity in pursuit of birds now with the ability to make sudden and violent changes of direction in flight, insects that sting, bite and can get into places they shouldn't - and of course things dying in unlikely places, chewing equipment and so on. And, in spite of all this, the ecosystem still goes a little crazy from time to time and does its own thing.

I think of this story every time I hear, or read, of some new "initiative" to "reduce carbon" or "stop glaciers melting" or some other - to the utterer - vitally important "thing" we absolutely have to do to "stop catastrophic climate change". My problem with that is that we don't know what the ramifications of any of these schemes really are. The one thing we can definitely identify is that cutting out all hydrocarbon fuels will mean some severe restrictions on private transport, which will return us to restricted travel and limitations on opportunity in terms of career choices, living conditions and much more. It will also impact on the production of all the synthetic materials currently so much a part of our lives. Wind energy will never produce the sort of electricity levels we currently need and probably never meet the growth in demand, and nor will solar energy.

More recently I have seen articles saying that we need to adapt what we have, improve it certainly, but adapt, rather than change. It makes sense, because at least we know what the impact of most of that will be, whereas we haven't a clue about some of the things being demanded by the "Green" lobbies. There is always a danger, thanks to that law of unintended consequences, that if we mess with "this little bit here" we will destabilise something much more dangerous "over there" which will, in its turn, drop on our heads like a proverbial ton of bricks.

1 comment:

  1. Love your way of thinking about this. Might have to see if my kids can get it and what they think. Why? Because I never actually thought of it this way and i like how it sounds.