Climate Disorder

Deinococcus radiodurans is an amazing bacteria. It can happily live in the waste tanks of nuclear reactors. Bacteria is a brutally simple and resilient form of life. It can survive vacuum, cold, heat, radiation, pressure: you name it, a bacteria has evolved to solve that environmental problem such that they can live and thrive.

Humanity is a highly specialised life form that solves extremes in environment through technology. Like bacteria we can survive in space though not for the same periods that bacteria can. We have also gone to the high pressure depths of the oceans, we have burrowed under the earth and we fly through the sky – all courtesy of technology.

The history of Terran life has been dominated by periodic mass extinctions. It appears to be a fact of planetary life that there will be cycles where the highly specialised and complex organisms are unable to survive any longer and disappear en-masse. Without our mastering of technology and energy, Homo sapiens are a vulnerable species who has been on the genetic brink of extinction once already.

When we think of global warming we think of a slow linear process. One that will give us a lot of time to come up with technological solutions to the problem of climate change. James Lovelock’s Daisyworld model suggests we won’t get that luxury. It predicts that life acts as a dampening feature in the global climate, absorbing external inputs until finally it is saturated: at which point it goes out of control and re-aligns to a new equilibrium. The problem for complex organisms like humanity is that the new equilibrium might be completely hostile to them – so hostile that not even technology will save us.

Lovelock’s model has its origins when he was trying to determine if Mars’ atmosphere was capable of carrying life. He decided it wasn’t in sufficient dynamic equilibrium – as Earth’s is – such that it can self-dampen. Lovelock discovered with his modelling of Mars that life acted as an active dampening component in a complex system.

The realisation from this was that the system did not have linear behaviour. The global ecosystem will absorb outside disturbances until “she cannae take it no more cap’n” at which point it flies into disorder – or in the terminology of Statistical Process Control Engineers [SPC] it goes out of control. Eventually it will re-dampen, probably relatively quickly in Terran life-history terms, but it is a new system that will be alien to the old equilibrium. There are three conclusions from Lovelock’s models in the climate change debate:

  1. It won’t be obvious when the system is on the verge of disorder
  2. When it goes out of control it will do so quickly
  3. There is no guarantee that when it re-equilibrises the system will be in a form hospitable to human life.

The Industrial Revolution has changed human civilisation for the positive. The downside has been that massive energy usage is affecting our one and only environment detrimentally. Humanity is a masterful exponent of technology who has used it constantly for the advantage of the species. The winning technology in this race will be the one that solves the problem of carbon imbalance and environmental degradation while keeping humanity’s energy advantage.

Either way, deinococcus radiodurans will still be rocking on.

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Sacha Blumen
14 years ago

Nice article, Cam.

I take issue with the following para though:

When we think of global warming we think of a slow linear process. One that will give us a lot of time to come up with technological solutions to the problem of climate change. James Lovelock

14 years ago

I think his model is a good one. And I’m beginning to think that nature without human influence may have grave problems tens of millions of years down the track.

Right now though there is no prospect at all of catastrophic warming.


And yet catastrophic cooling is just a Maunder minimum away.

Prior to the catastrophic equilibrium shift that Lovelock envisages could happen a few things would have to precede it.

1. The melting of most of the ice in Antarctica.

2. The warming of the deep oceans.

3. The closing off of most drought areas.

The sort of imbedding of extra joules that such a setup would require is clearly impossible with our current continental arrangements.

Whereas catastrophic cooling is just a Maunder Minimum away.

Lovelocks got the model right I think but he has the direction of the catastrophe wrong.

The old genius has been led astray by his younger colleagues.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

This is the thing that worries me about global warming – it’s obvious that there is non-linearity everywhere you look – positive feedback all over the place. So you can be pretty confident that lots of things will happen that we hadn’t expected. We can’t know this system well in advance of it shifting phases. So best pay some insurance (restrict emissions) and try to be cautious.

14 years ago

Homo sapiens are a vulnerable species who has been on the genetic brink of extinction once already.

Do you have more info on that? When were we last on the brink? During the black plague or long before that?

14 years ago

Positive feedbacks all over the place?

Were that true we would have careened into over-warming many times in the last thirty-nine million years.

We haven’t once.

Instead we have careened into catastrophic cooling many times.

If you ask me land ice is about the only positive feedback worth worrying about in the current continental setup.

14 years ago

Actually yobbo.

We were on the brink 70 000 years ago due to catastrophic cooling.