Belmont Club

The Usual Suspect

Mark Twain observed that “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Captain Alfred McLaren, who commanded Cold War attack subs before he took up undersea exploration in semi-retirement, was an observant man.  McLaren descended twice to view the wreck of the Titanic.  On the second trip he noticed a peculiar change in the rate of deterioration in the four intervening years. Something was supercharging the growth of microbes which produced rusticles on its hull.

“I couldn’t see anything but rusticles… everywhere we looked,” he said. Rusticles look like icicles made of rust, and are formed when tiny organisms eat into iron under water.

Scientists believe that the Titanic is losing as much as 270 kg of metal a day.

The idea that something unanticipated was happening to life in the oceans received more support when Johns Hopkins researchers recently discovered that “phytoplankton, micro-organisms that float, as opposed to swim, are rapidly thriving in the North Atlantic, suggesting an environmental shift that defies previous scientific predictions.” This is important because phytoplankton are the foundation of the food chain.  Like the microbes that created the rusticles, they were doing unexpectedly well.

Conventional wisdom held they should be dying.  For years the numbers of phytoplankton were thought to be in decline due to Global Warming. “A 2010 study published in Nature reported that marine phytoplankton have declined substantially in the world’s oceans over the past century.”  But the Johns Hopkins study contradicted this claim.  Something — perhaps C02 — was revving up the plankton.

Scientists have long thought that the number of plankton species would decline due to increased acidity in the oceans. However, over the last four decades or so they have grown to be much more in abundance, a new study indicates. …

“Something strange is happening here, and it’s happening much more quickly than we thought it should,” Anand Gnanadesikan, associate professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins.

Just as nuclear power and radiation explained everything in the 1950s, in 2015 the usual suspect in all modern mysteries is  Global Warming.  “In Britain last week, Sky News aired an interview with Prince Charles in which he declared that a clear link existed between climate change and the emergence of Islamic State.”  It was therefore understandable that Global Warming is the presumed cause for the phytoplankton boom just as it was the culprit in its former assumed decline.  The way the narrative works is the Usual Suspect is guilty in every case.  Things are simpler that way.

“Our statistical analyses on field data from the CPR point to carbon dioxide as the best predictor of the increase in coccolithophores,” Sara Rivero-Calle, a Johns Hopkins doctoral student and lead author of the study said. “The consequences of releasing tons of CO2 over the years are already here and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”…

“These clearly represent major shifts in ecosystem type,” Gnanadesikan said. “But unless we understand what drives coccolithophore abundance, we can’t understand what is driving such shifts. Is it carbon dioxide?”

Gnanadesikan notes that while the report is certainly is good news for creatures that eat coccolithophores, it is not clear whether the rapid growth in the tiny plankton’s population is harmful or beneficial to the planet.

“What is worrisome,” he said, “is that our result points out how little we know about how complex ecosystems function.”

The Johns Hopkins researchers may not fully understand how complex systems work, but no such self-doubt apparently inhibits the politicians. At the Climate Talks in Paris, president Obama forthrightly apologized for America’s role in causing climate change.

Mr. Obama said that the United States was at least partly to blame for the life-threatening damage that environmental change has wrought.

“I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter,” Mr. Obama said, “to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  Fortunately taxpayer money can purchase absolution. “The leaders of six countries and the World Bank have called on economies across the globe to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions to fight global warming.”  Because politicians felt the science was clear-cut and settled and there seemed little left for world leaders to do but ask for the money and raise a glass of the finest champagne to the forthcoming penitence of America.

President Barack Obama is capping a day of high-profile climate talks with a quiet dinner at a chic Paris eatery.

French President Francois Hollande is hosting Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other top advisers at L’Ambroisie — one of the finest gastronomic restaurants in the trendy Marais.

L’Ambroisie’s menu is fit for a king — or an occasional president. …

Obama told reporters snapping photographs to be careful in the luxurious surroundings, “Don’t break the chandelier. You can’t afford it.”

“You can’t afford it.” That was apparently how the Congress felt about Obama’s program of redemption. “U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says the House will not go along if President Barack Obama tries to commit taxpayer money to support a climate accord reached in Paris.”

But leaving aside the cost of indulgences, a far more important point in the Climate Change debate is what was the sin?  How do we know what Gaia dislikes? This question is especially germane given “how little we know about how complex ecosystems function”. Government attempts to avoid angering the Earth Goddess might in fact trigger offense.  Environmental control projects are in fact terraforming projects on a trillion dollar scale.

A recent article in the MIT Technology Review titled “How Synthetic Organisms Could Terraform the Earth” explains how dangerous playing this game can be when you don’t know what you are doing:

one way to combat climate change could be to release synthetic organisms that sequester carbon. How this can be done safely is a question bioengineers are now beginning to address. …

scientists and politicians the world over are looking for ways to halt or reverse these changes, a task that is fraught with difficulties in a world hooked on fossil fuels. One option increasingly discussed is terraforming—deliberately altering the environment in a way that cools the planet, perhaps by absorbing carbon dioxide or reflecting sunlight

To have an impact, these kinds of plans changes must have a global reach require engineering projects of previously unimaginable scale. That’s set bioengineers thinking that there might be an alternative option.

Instead of creating global engineering projects, why not create life forms that do a similar job instead. The big advantage of this approach is that organisms grow naturally and can spread across huge areas of the planet by the ordinary mechanisms of life. Thus the process of terraforming the landscape would occur with minimal human input. What could possibly go wrong?


There is indeed much that can go wrong. The Johns Hopkins study underscore that effects can be 180 degrees from the calculations of the Climate Changers. Politicians who cannot even predict relatively simple international systems in the short term are being given a blank check to rework the world’s ecosystem in the long term.  But is this wise?

Sean Liedman, writing in the Council For Foreign Relations drew a direct comparison between the administration’s failure at preserving the international political system and its attempts to maintain the global climate. Early in his administration, Obama attempted to warm up relations with Russia, China and the Muslim world but unfortunately achieved a “geopolitical cooling”.  The Obama era now has a name, but not the one it wanted. An era that began by promising to call itself a “World Without Nuclear Weapons”  may now be cruelly remembered as Cold War 2 (CWII).

What if the president’s efforts to manage nature meet the same success as his efforts to manage the Middle East? They might well fail as badly.

John Birkinshaw of the London Business School noted that managing complexity “is a battle between emergence and entropy”.  In that duel the ponderous international political system can be too easily overmatched by the speed at which nature can move. Politicians are far too incompetent to repose much hope in their ability to bring things under control.  In reality they may not even know what they are dealing with.  The late Michael Crichton once warned the world about politicians who promised to regulate everything.

“Do you know why computers were first built?” [Malcolm said].

“No,” Gennaro said.

“Computers were built in the late 1940s because mathematicians like John von Neumann thought that if you had a computer-a machine to handle a lot of variables simultaneously-you would be able to predict the weather. Weather would finally fall to human understanding. And men believed that dream for the next forty years. They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been a cherished scientific belief since Newton.”


“Chaos theory throws it right out the window. It says that you can never predict certain phenomena at all. You can never predict the weather more than a few days away. All the money that has been spent on long-range forecasting-about half a billion dollars in the last few decades-is money wasted. It’s a fool’s errand. It’s as pointless as trying to turn lead into gold. We look back at the alchemists and laugh at what they were trying to do, but future generations will laugh at us the same way. We’ve tried the impossible-and spent a lot of money doing it. Because in fact there are great categories of phenomena that are inherently unpredictable.”

They never could believe there were things they couldn’t predict, things they couldn’t control.  “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That is precisely our present problem.  We’re too damned sure about things we know little about.

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