Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Earth having an indigestion

We humans share a very flawed sense of proportion. We tend to consistently underestimate the relevance of certain events and overestimate others. Social psychologists refer to the general phenomena as cognitive bias.

Environmentalists stay awake at night worrying about global warming. One of the worst-case scenarios of global warming involves the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2, currently trapped under the sea. Recent studies reveal that thawing lakes of the northern hemisphere are releasing methane at an alarming rate. The more Earth temperatures increase, the more frozen lakes and permafrost thaw, the more methane is released into the atmosphere, the bigger the greenhouse effect, the more Earth temperatures rise. This vicious cycle, if unchecked, could wipe out most rainforests, destroy the fertility of many soils and leave the Arctic ice-free even in midwinter. Entire regions will become uninhabitable. Depending on where you live, your country might enter into a war with a neighboring country over fresh water resources.

Study of ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show that increases of methane concentrations have occurred the past. According to the anthropic principle, given that life exists on Earth, especially in the form of Homo sapiens, conditions on Earth must be amenable to carbon-based life forms, including us. However, as anyone involved in the stock market knows, past performance is no guarantee for the future. Indeed, the Earth has sustained life for millions of years, however, that is no proof that it will necessarily continue do so in the future.

How is it that we don't seem to worry more about the environment? Is it because the problem is too big to lay on our frail shoulders? Is it because we lack proof about the impending catastrophe? Is it because of insufficient media coverage? Is it because we subconsciously know that, like our own death, Earth's demise is inevitable, so we don't wish too waste time worrying about it? What are the cognitive biases that we need to overcome in order to react more effectively?


Unknown said...

"could cause the Earth atmosphere to evaporate"... Talk about a flawed sense of proportion! :-) Just consider the sheer amount of energy required for the atmosphere to escape Earth's gravitation.

Ceki said...

You are right. Retained by Earth's gravity, the atmosphere is not going anywhere soon. I'll make the necessary corrections.

Unknown said...

There are so many factors as to why the issue of global warming is not being addressed properly. I will go through a brief list of some factors:
1. Even if country X addresses global warming by implementing some measure (taxing carbon emissions), there will most likely be a country Y that is not addressing it in that way. This gives country Y a competitive advantage over country X, so country X chooses not to implement that measure. It is basically the idea of the Prisoner's Dilemma.
2. Even if country X bans products or services that contribute to global warming, country Y may not. Therefore, any products or services banned in country X will be relocated to country Y. For example, even if the U.S. banned non-electric vehicles today, those vehicles would not disappear. They would be shipped to other countries (like Iran) for purchase, and they would continue to exist and contribute to climate change in country Y instead.
(Opinion) 3. Human beings, as a species, are generally short-sighted. The few that regularly think long-term are vastly outnumbered by the short-sighted ones. Because climate change is a long-term problem, it is going unaddressed by the masses.
(Opinion) 4. Ignoring climate change is very profitable to certain corporations and individuals. Their idea might be that even if climate change makes a large portion of the world uninhabitable, they and their offspring will be wealthy enough to move and live in locations that are still habitable. Therefore, if they ignore the problem in exchange for profit, they still come out ahead.
5. Humans depend on a lot on things that contribute to climate change. For instance, the world is full of cars that allow people the freedom to travel and work long distances away. Airplanes allow us to fly across continents to experience more of the world. Barges and large trucks allow for inter-continental trade and enable people to buy previously unavailable products and services. We rely on these things so much, that we're not willing to give them up even if it will eventually make the world uninhabitable. Similar to how you might choose to do something you know is unhealthy because it brings you happiness.