I would like to try and develop a topic on the fly, writing down my thoughts pretty much as they occur and seeing where they lead. This topic is the relative weight placed on physics in determining the extent of global warming, its impacts and the constraints on our options to deal with it, and the relative discounting of biological processes that may make the inputs to physical equations harder to determine.
In this I need to acknowledge the impact of my recent reading of work by and about Freeman Dyson. Dyson is a theoretical physicist and quite possible the second smartest person on the planet. (Possibly the smartest, Stephen Hawking, is on the other side of the fence from Dyson regarding global warming. Hawking is far more concerned about it than Dyson.) However, Dyson worked in the field of climate science for 15 years and has consistently made the point that while we roughly know the relative sizes of the major carbon sinks (ocean absorption, ocean plant life, atmosphere, vegetation and topsoil), at least to the ‘right number of zeroes’, we don’t know enough about how they interact.
Most criticism of climate models involves uncertainty about cloud cover and aerosols. But attempts to respond to this criticism has been about doing better physics. I submit that doing better biology would be a precursor to getting better answers. Clouds and aerosols have biological properties as well as influencing outward radiation at certain frequencies. Those biological properties may well be important. Vegetation, as Dyson recently pointed out, has increased by 7% globally in recent years. This was not something the physics-based scientific community anticipated. More importantly, I don’t see anybody discussing the possible effects of significantly more vegetation. That’s a lot of photosynthesis happening.
Similarly, vast changes in land use and land cover obviously change the albedo of the earth’s surface. But perhaps too obviously. Are we convinced that albedo is the only, or even primary change that should be considered? (To be fair, physicists also look at the vast vertical columns of air that are displaced by such changes–but even that begs the question, when we change the properties of the land, we are changing the biology–the plants that we grow for food change the climate and the topsoil as well.
If this is not quickly shown to be arrant nonsense, I hope that people will engage with this. Certainly I would like to see papers showing that the biology of the biome is appropriately considered in the delicate dance of climate change. But I also would like to hear thoughts on how it could be better integrated into our discussions. Of course, then will come the chemists…