Four things wrong with the recent claims of David Attenborough

David Attenborough, who has narrated many of the better moments in documentary film, has warned us that Things Will Only Get Worse. Something about such claims always demands attention: the pessimist sounds prescient and wise. Here are four things wrong with his claims.

1. This Malthusian idea that we can’t feed ourselves is as ridiculous now as it has always been, and even more so since we learnt how to fix nitrogen.

I’d love to write about how supply responses to scarcity almost always overshoot, it’s a little close to what I do for a day job* so I’ll restrict myself to these telling facts:

a) there is a global food surplus;

b) when the world population doubled from 3 billion to six billion (~1960-2000) global food production per person actually increased 20%, and food prices dropped;

c) if agricultural yields in the developing world improved to Western levels that itself would feed billions more (and is slowly occurring);

2. Many of the finer things depend on the achievements of the top tier of a large number of participants. This effect is seen in sport, where a handful of a nation’s best invariably perform better than an equivalent number of a smaller country; in the arts, where only a small number of people create really historically significant artwork; and literature, where there are only so many authors that really have an impact, and again larger countries reap the lion’s share. To some extend this happens in science as well, where having hundreds of scientists chasing a solution to an unsolved question of supreme significance will invariably be more effective than tens, even if success and glory only goes to one.

3. Thirdly his claim that we have stopped evolving is remarkably primitive.

Firstly we are changing genetically – and quite fast. As a simple example, the ability to digest milk came about less then ten thousand years ago.

But more importantly evolution is not some abstract 19th century theory, but grounded in molecular science. If he means our DNA has stopped changing for the better, nothing could be further from the truth, and we are increasingly driving that change rather than leaving it to random mutation.

Genetic engineering might be controversial when it comes to (say) height, intelligence and eye colour in newborns, but gene therapy, and the delivery of changes to your DNA through viruses is finally close to realising its promise.

As a recent example, leukaemia has been sent into remission in a handful of nearly hopeless (but lucky) patients by giving them HIV.

Well not quite – what actually happened was the disease segments were knocked out and helpful sequences added. Since HIV works by reprogramming its sufferers’ genetic code, this is a change that we should be grateful we don’t have to wait to evolve naturally.

The entire field of synthetic biology is at the cusp of revolution. It appears that the field is about to transition from cutting edge science to technology accessible by hobbyists, perhaps like computing in the 60s.**

If this sounds unlikely – it has already begun, as even undergraduates and enthusiasts have created novel organisms with useful properties. The annual iGem competition fields teams of undergraduates who develop novel organisms which can, to take recent examples, detect poisonous metals, convert waste to green fuels and a host of other applications from the realm of science fiction.

4. One final mistake is his support of China’s one child policy.

With appropriate analogies to Japan in the 90s, it is more likely we are at the peak, rather than the crescent, of Chinese power. That one child policy will inexorably lead to a harsher version of the demographic decline that made Japan so economically toothless (though still extraordinarily successful by measures of total wealth, medical criteria, technology penetration etc).

Mr Attenborough seems pleased about the ‘millions of mouths unfed’ – for which there certainly would have been food – when he should be lamenting the artists, scientists, writers and the richness of life in all its messiness that is now lost.

It is a pity David Attenborough is not using his voice to argue the other side. He should stick to the silky-accented oratory that has made him so enduringly popular.

*I could give dramatic examples of how that affects investment opportunities in shipping, resources and undersea cables

**for once this analogy seems appropriate


Climate Fuzzy

Without wanting to sound too crazy, there are a couple of things missing from the usual discussion about climate change:

  1. Some aspects could turn out to be quite good for all of us
  2. We are living in a historically cold period and the temperature increases simply aren’t so bad. Let me finish.

One of the earliest to consider this effect was the all-round savvantic Svante Arrhenius, who formulated (what we now call) the Arrhenius equation, one of the first steps a student so-inclined takes into the world of chemical kinetics..

Heat capacities of substances have been extensively studied for hundreds of years and the fact that the changing composition of the atmosphere will affect its temperature is about as solid as anything in science.(1)

The same certainly does not apply, however, to the consequences of said warming, though you would hardly think it listening to the coterie of pop scientists and celebrities who wear climate politics as a badge of pride and moral superiority.

The scary charts showing the higher temperatures of today compared to the last 120 years remind me of the failed efforts of would-be statisticians trying to determine ‘average’ market returns. It depends entirely on the start and end point.

As a demonstration, this is part of the core case that industrial revolution has caused an increase in temperature:

Global Warming since BCE

Convincing? Let’s zoom out a little further.

10 000  years of climate

Not quite what you’d expect considering the thunderous applause that accompanied this man beating this woman for the 2007 Nobel peace prize.(2)

Now let’s take a look at the real long term:

Long term climate change

It’s fairly apparent that we are well within (and are actually right at the bottom) of the historic temperature range.

Warming greenies can welcome

To put it simply, higher temperatures are good for biological life. Where temperature is high, you tend to get lush forests. Where low, you get tundra, and at the extreme, almost entirely barren arctic icecaps.

Thinking more fundamentally,you have to look hard to find the special case reactions where increasing temperature actually slows down rather than speeds up a reaction. This applies to processes that govern, for example, plant growth.(3)

Desertification and deforestation are terrible things, but have their own set of specific causes.

Like a child would write

When you read through lists of global warming ‘consequences’ it’s depressing how one-sided and shallow the arguments are. Rarely are positive benefits mentioned, and if they are, they are quietly and guiltily sneaked in at the end.

The whole thing reminds me of those ridiculous anti-drug campaigns designed to spook children about non-toxic but arbitrarily illegal recreational drugs, that list ‘mild euphoria’ after a host of ‘effects’ that include everything from nausea and hair loss to diarrhoea and death. I mean, if all your information came from this list you would wonder why anyone would bother in the first place.

Seriously, when I was about ten years old those campaigns scared the hell out of me. For some reason it’s taboo to suggest a more logical approach might be to grade drugs by how harmful they actually are. Flawed logic on a societal scale, and a topic for another post. The incredibly named Professor Nutt lost his job running the Drug Advisory board of the UK for suggesting something similar.

To get back on topic here’s some examples some irritating one-sided thinking when it comes to climate change effects:

Health and Psychological Benefits

From the IPCC, who were honoured beside Mr Gore with that Nobel: ‘Climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse impacts on human health, with significant loss of life.”

The threat of tropical diseases spreading further from the equator features prominently, ostensibly to spook USAmericans and Europeans, totally ignoring how modern countries like Singapore live comfortably within malarial zones and still achieve world-leading life expectancies and medical outcomes (and have rather lush vegetation as well..)

Heat waves are also predicted to cause widespread death. Well, by simply considering the substantially higher death rates in Winter over Summer we can expect there to be at least some kind of positive impact.

Winter is coming
Winter is coming

Yet somehow respectable international institutions are allowed to claim otherwise.

This paper from Stanford suggests that global warming could feasibly save 40,000 lives per year in the US alone.*****

And, while noone ever seems to say it, we would all enjoy a little warmer weather. Svante himself looked forward to a time when Sweden ‘may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates.’

Economic Benefits

There are usually substantial omissions from calculations of the ‘cost’. To pick one example, the Arctic trade route will open up, saving enormous amounts of fuel (ironically), and creating an economic windfall.****

As when anything complex changes, this is not to say that there aren’t unfortunate losers. In this case it is the inhabitants of low-lying islands that will have to relocate. (Densely populated mainlands should be fine, as it will be economic to fortify barriers.) But the right way to respond to this would be to fund relocation.

Again while charts like this are scary, before you panic note that the scale is in millimetres.

global sea levels

There is a real cost to these climate schemes

While at best only having a marginal impact on temperature in 100 years time (which furthermore may or may not be a good thing), smart people who could otherwise be doing something more useful are twisting themselves in circles trying to figure out how to sell carbon taxes and complex financial trading schemes to a sensibly sceptic public.

Considering that much of the proposed cost of global warming is related to extreme weather, it bears keeping in mind that we are yet to predict whether it will be sunny next week.

For good reason as well.. the climate is a complex system, of the type that might require generational increases in computing and theory to properly pin down, and will probably forever frustrate economists.

Tellingly, the most optimistic predictions of all those man hours and cost increases and political headaches that have been funnelled into creating complex, opaque markets and extra taxes is a minor deviation from the short-term trend (and an absolute blip on the long-term).

Trading carbon

With politically sensitive industries at stake, you can expect there to be severe and more importantly concentrated pressure on governments to release more permits than they originally promise.. the effect naturally being that again and again the market will crash (as it has).

So be wary of investing in carbon. In fact, in almost every case it would make a great short. I mean, as if the price is going to go up? Industry would be in uproar and demand the release of more permits.

We are lucky to be warming instead of cooling

It would be far worse if we entered a global ice age. If that occurred we would see devastation that put the ‘increased risk of severe storms’ in stark relief. In fact, if that occurred a few hundred years ago, the resulting famines likely have significantly retarded human progress.

I’d like to think that if that if we entered an ice age today our aversion to, say, nuclear power would diminish and the West would be ok. But all the artificial greenhouses our combined economic might could muster would hardly compensate if the agricultural belts were restricted to the equator.

Nobody knows if or when our climate might take a cooling turn, but you can bet that if it does we’ll be thankful for every last bit of rotational and vibrational energy stored in those infamous molecules of CO2.

In conclusion

Climate change deniers are quacks, but the scaremongering has been way ahead of the science for some time (and more in line with weather forecasting than say, chemistry). Almost to a rule, the fear mongers ignore any process of adaptation by society or the biosphere, despite a quite a large amount of evidence that that is, in fact, how things work.

While higher levels of CO2 will certainly lead to higher-than-otherwise (not necessarily higher) temperatures, whether what happens next is a good or bad thing is not preordained. At the very least it would do well for all of us to hear the good with the bad. This is a religion we would do well to lose.

ps in case you misread that I’m not a sceptic of climate change, only the rather one-sided celebrity doom mongering of its effects. I would probably even settle for the debate being a little more balanced.

(1) If you’re interested this is part of the field of thermodynamics where much interesting work can be done without the atomic model, so you could be unaware of the existence of atoms and still do useful work.

(2) not that I imagine she cared.

(3) In chemistry there’s a rule of thumb that for every 10 degree/kelvin increase reaction rate doubles. I’ve never actually seen someone use this, but it’s great for setting questions, typically: ‘given the fore-mentioned rule of thumb and the Arrhenius equation (crafty fellow), derive the activation energy’.

(4) they also think medical expenses will be reduced by $20 billion, but I can’t be bothered to see if how they calculated it makes sense.

(5) admittedly not ideal for polar bears