The new climate deniers

The new climate deniers no longer deny that climate change is happening. It’s become too obvious that it is.

It used to be that climate change deniers could ridicule the notion that the Earth was warming by pointing to cold snaps like the one in Texas where thousands of cold temperature records are being broken.

Saskpower’s Carbon capture plant

But climatologists have said all along that global warming will mean more chaotic weather: hotter, colder, dryer, wetter, stormier. The obvious makes it hard for climate change deniers to dismiss wildfires, droughts, and loss of arable land to deserts.

Instead, climate deniers have surrendered to fatalism, wishful thinking, and individualism.

Sure, Big Oil hopes that we continue to dump C02 into the atmosphere but the new climate deniers are not disingenuous. It’s just that the problem seems insurmountable. People of goodwill have come to believe that it’s too late to do anything about the problem.

Not true, climatologist Michael Mann told CBC’s Quirks and Quarks:

“That’s very dangerous because first of all, it’s not true. The science indicates otherwise. The science indicates that if we reduce our carbon emissions dramatically, we can avert the worst impacts of climate change. For example, this idea that global warming is now unstoppable, that warming is going to release so much methane from the Arctic that it will warm the planet beyond habitable levels. There is no scientific support for that contention.”

The new climate deniers are not anti-science. On the contrary, they look to technological solutions. Count me in. I wish it were true, not just because I hope that science and technology will come the rescue but because my fossil-fuel lifestyle is comfortable and I wish it would continue. If only there was some way to fix the problem without inconveniencing me.

Carbon capture is wishful thinking. The plan is to keep dumping CO2 into the atmosphere but pump it back into the earth where it came from. But the future of carbon capture doesn’t look good.

Look at Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam carbon capture plant that cost $1.5 billion to build in 2014 and still hasn’t reached its target to store 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide due to technological problems. Even if the technology worked, we would need 38,000 such plants. And that’s assuming that CO2 emissions remain low because of the pandemic.

Another way in which otherwise well-meaning climate deniers can paralyze global action is to advocate individualism. It’s a popular notion in the “me era”; that if we change our habits individually we can collectively accomplish great things.

But what did we, as individuals, do to remove lead from gasoline and paint -a toxic element that was causing neurological development in children delays? What did we, as individuals, do to reduce the chemicals that were thinning the Earth’s protective ozone layer? Nothing. We accomplished these things through our governments and international agreements.

The idea that individual choices and technology will save us is wishful thinking. The actions of individuals, no matter how heroic, cannot accomplish what we can collectively do through our governments.

Don’t despair. We can still keep global temperate increases less than two degrees Celsius through international cooperation. Now that the U.S. is back in the Paris Accord, there is hope that cooperation will work.

The promise and peril of CRISPR gene technology

So far, the promise of genetic engineering to cure disease has been a bit of a dud. Up until now scientists could only read our genomes – now they can write. A gene-editing tool found in bacteria, called CRISPR, is poised to achieve that goal.

CRISPR

As well as read, the old technology allowed the ability to add says Dr. Elizabeth Simpson at the University of British Columbia on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks. She’s begun to use CRISPR in her work on aniridia, a genetic eye disease.

“In the older technology we would add the missing gene, not insert it into the genome to make the eye function properly. We had a lot of trouble making the addition produce the right amount of protein at the right time. With CRISPR, all the natural regulation is still there and can be used by the eye to heal itself. We don’t have to be as clever and it’s a faster way to go.”

CRISPR (Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) is part of a natural bacterial defense. Scientists have known about these sections in bacterial DNA for years but they didn’t know what they were for or how they got there.

Then they discovered that these repeated clusters were sections of DNA gathered from attacking viruses: the bacteria had literally incorporated the enemy’s DNA into theirs. Still, their function remained a mystery.

Dr. Sylvain Moineau, Professor at the University of Laval, was one of the researchers to find out. He discovered that some yogurt bacteria weren’t susceptible to viral attack and some were. The ones that weren’t used the embedded viral DNA, described above, as a natural defense. These successful bacteria compared the embedded viral DNA with sections in the attacking viruses, and then cut that section out. As you can image, viruses don’t work well with gaping holes in their midsections: a pretty good defense.

While cut up viruses don’t work well, human DNA has the ability can stitch itself back up. That allows CRISPR technology to remove parts of our DNA that cause disease and replace it with functioning parts.

That’s the wonder of CRISPR. It cuts out the bad parts and inserts the good parts. Think of it as the search and replace function in word processors says Dr. Feng Zhang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was key in transforming the natural CRISPR system into a gene editing tool. For example, if I’ve misspelled CRISPR throughout this whole article, I can use the search and replace function in Word to replace all incorrect instances of CRISTR with CRISPR.

Powerful tools in the hands of the wrong people can be disastrous. It would be wonderful to cure muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease. And since permanent genetic changes can be passed on through generations, malaria could be wiped out forever by making mosquitoes resistant to the parasite.

But In the hands of bio-hackers and unethical corporations, CRISPR could wreak havoc in areas of agriculture, biology, pharmaceuticals, ecology and wildlife preservation.

Ethical debates must take place before the technology becomes widespread. It’s another reason that we need strong government regulation.

Firelight stories shape our culture

It wasn’t a real campfire but the effect was the same. We settled for a propane campfire after wood campfires were banned. Other than being instantly on and producing no smoke, the propane briquettes flickered as brightly and radiated a warm glow.

burningcampfire

It didn’t take long until we were transfixed by the fire and drawn into sheltering canopy of flickering light that spread only a little beyond our circle to the tree tops. Beyond our little circle, the great sphere of stars above: that slowly rotating screen of ancient constellations.

As dark draws the circle tighter, stories real and fantastic are told. Imagination takes flight and the mundane matters of the day concerning food and water fade.

The primal firelight connects us with our ancient selves. Polly Wiessner, anthropology professor at the University of Utah, wondered what it was about firelight that is so compelling. Since the stories of early humans are not embedded in the charcoal remains of their fires, she did the next best thing and studied the culture of a people for whom firelight is not a summertime novelty but part of daily life.

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner told CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.

Stories told by firelight transform societies and encourage innovation through imagining what couldn’t be seen. Prof. Wiessner found that firelight helped human culture and thought evolve by reinforcing social traditions, promoting harmony and equality, and sparking the imagination to envision a broad sense of community, both with distant people and the spirit world.

This study goes beyond the obvious effects of fire on cooking and how the processing of food affected diets and anatomy. Not much research has gone into how firelight extends the day, especially in tropical latitudes where it is dark for 12 hours a day. “Little is known about how important the extended day was for igniting the embers of culture and society.”

“There is something about fire in the middle of the darkness that bonds, mellows and also excites people. It’s intimate,” says Wiessner, who has studied the !Kung Bushmen the Kalahari Desert for 40 years. “Nighttime around a fire is universally time for bonding, for telling social information, for entertaining, for a lot of shared emotions.”

Wiessner found daytime conversations differed considerably. Of daytime conversations, 34 per cent were complaints, criticism and gossip to regulate social relationships; 31 per cent were economic matters, such as hunting for dinner; 16 percent were jokes; only 6 percent were stories. At night 80 per cent were stories.

“Stories are told in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies; together with gifts, they were the original social media.” Firelight stories are more than flights of fancy. They allow us to imagine worlds and communities beyond our own.

Such extended communities allowed humans “to colonize our planet because they had networks of mutual support, which you see expressed today in our capacity for social networking. Humans form communities that are not together in space, but are in our heads – virtual communities. They are communities in our heads.”

Rare Earth

We are not alone. To believe contrary seems unscientific and unenlightened. Ever since Copernicus plucked our Earth from the centre of the universe and placed it in orbit around a rather ordinary star, humans too have been demoted from masters of the universe to just another civilization.

alien city

The idea that others are out there was popularized by astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. In 1974, they estimated that our Milky Way galaxy alone should contain a million civilizations. To think otherwise seemed egotistical.

It was against that backdrop that I read a contrary viewpoint by professors Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee in their book: Rare Earth, Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (2004).

They had no problem with the idea that life may exist elsewhere: after all, bacteria have been found on Earth in the most hostile places. But anything beyond the most basic was unlikely. “In other planetary systems, primitive life might flourish but never advance to the point where forests and flying animals even get a serious chance to evolve.”

There are many arguments for a rare Earth but here are three: location, location, location. First, the right distance from a star. Complex life requires what Carl Sagan called a “habitable zone.” Otherwise, no liquid water and we cook or freeze.

Habitable planets have to be located in the right part of galaxies. Not too close to centre where black holes gobble up solar systems and things are chaotic. Not near the edge where stars don’t have enough metals.

Life needs the right kind of galaxy. Not globular clusters where stars are too hot. Not elliptical or small galaxies that are metal-poor.

Sagan notwithstanding, things seemed gloomy for the prospect of millions of civilizations until the Kepler satellite discovered more than a thousand of planets. Some even appeared to be within the habitable zone.

But on closer examination, Earth still seems as exceptional as Ward and Brownlee suggested more than a decade ago. A study by astrophysicists  Konstantin Batygin and Greg Laughlin takes a closer look at these newly discovered planets.

Dr. Laughlin told the CBC science program Quirks and Quarks: “This flood of information made our solar system stand out like a sore thumb.” What makes our solar system unique is the lack of big planets close to the sun. The systems that Kepler discovered have gas giants near the star, more like Neptune than like Earth.

Also unique in our solar system is the position of Jupiter which has more mass than all the other planets combined. Laughlin and Batygin confirmed an earlier idea that Jupiter moved close to the sun in the early development of our solar system and gobbled up all the planet-making material. No wonder Jupiter is so fat.

In one fell swoop, Jupiter cleaned up the buffet and then joined in a dance with that other giant, Saturn, to move back from where it came. This dance is called a resonance in which Jupiter rotates three times for every two of Saturn.

The notion that we are alone is hard to take but the dream of other civilizations is getting dim.