A cautionary tale about the precautionary principle

fennec foxThis piece is about the fennec fox, and in particular about circumstances in which the fennec fox might well take over from the polar bear as the standard image used by the alarmists to try to persuade us that the world as we know it is at risk from human activity.

I should say at once that the fennec foxes got absolutely nothing to do with the Fenwick family. The word “fennec” is simply the Arab word for fox. The fennec fox is a fox which thrives in desert conditions.

But first, we are going to take a bit of a diversion, and to ask the question, “What are the three biggest risks we face in terms of global catastrophe?”

The answer to this question tends to be cultural. The was a time when Semitic tribes of various persuasions in the Middle East would have you believe that the biggest risk was that of divine retribution, with lots of fire and brimstone descending from the heavens, to be dished out if the people at large worship the wrong sort of imaginary friend. But that view is rather out of fashion now. About a hundred years ago, HG Wells whipped quite a few people up into the notion that there was a real risk of the planet being taken over by visitors from outer space with destructive habits. Quite a few Hollywood films were made with this theme. But again, nobody seems to worry about that too much these days. More recently, in the last century, there was a real fear that humankind might be destroyed in some sort of orgy of warfare, involving setting off every nuclear device on the planet. Again, that does not look quite so likely now. Neither the governments of the United States nor of Russia behave particularly well in terms of foreign policy, but there really does not seem to be any possibility that either of them would have any appetite at all for all-out nuclear warfare. Certainly, it’s possible that some rogue state might get hold of a few modest nuclear devices, but these certainly wouldn’t be enough to cause global catastrophe.

So what are the biggest three risks we face? Views might vary, but I would suggest that they are super volcano, meteor and the next ice age.

Ordinary volcanoes are fairly common. In recent times, they have tended to be in rather remote places and have not done that much damage, but a super volcano is seriously bad news. For example, the Reunion eruption of 66 million years ago produced enough lava for the whole of the Deccan traps, covering about 200,000 square miles, and with a volume of 100,000 cubic miles. That is a lot of lava. It is widely thought that the volcano under Yellowstone Park in the United States represents a significant present risk, and if that were to blow, it would be very bad news indeed.

At the moment, our understanding of geology does not seem to be nearly good enough for us to be able to predict with any certainty at all when and where the next super volcano might erupt. If it does happen in the foreseeable future (there is bound to be another super volcano sooner or later) it might well be with very little warning indeed. The main problem, apart from the ash (which would be a nuisance) and the noxious gases (ditto) would be massive global cooling. Now, despite what Al Gore might have you believe, global cooling would be very bad news indeed for humankind. Our crops would not grow, and many people – probably billions – would die of cold and/or starvation. If you wanted any prospect of surviving, you would hope like anything that your country had invested everything it has got into nuclear power and genetic engineering. The poor sods who had denuded themselves of everything except windmills, solar panels and self-sufficiency are more or less certain to die. What you would want is huge amounts of power, and genetically engineered crops which would survive the lack of sunlight. You might also, of course, desperately hope for every scrap of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that you could possibly find, in order to encourage plant growth.

Meteor strikes are by no means unknown either. The strike in Tunguska in Siberia in 1908 is estimated to have flattened about 80 million trees over an area of about 1000 mi.². Happily, it was in the middle of nowhere. It was not a particularly large object – perhaps 400 feet or so in diameter – and the prevailing wisdom is that it probably disintegrated in the air shortly before hitting the ground. But it is a salutary example from comparatively recent times of just how much damage can be caused even by quite a small meteor. On the other hand, the meteor that hit Chicxulub at about the same time as the Reunion super volcano was much bigger: it seems that the meteor in question was about 6 miles in diameter. The explosive force of the impact has been calculated at about 2 million times more powerful than the most powerful nuclear bomb ever devised. This impact did a great deal of damage, and the experts now seem pretty much settled that it saw the end of the dinosaurs as huge amounts of debris were thrown up into the atmosphere. As with a super volcano, there was a massive die off of vegetation. The problem seems to be first of all massive heat caused by the impact itself and then, as the effect of debris in the atmosphere cuts in a massive drop in temperatures.

We would get more warning of this one. Astronomers seem to be able to predict the risk of anything coming too close a good decade or so in advance. The question is, “What could we do about it?” At this stage, the best prospect would seem to be a seriously powerful nuclear bomb to blow it up, or at any rate to divert it. If that doesn’t work, then again, you need to just hope and pray that the greenies have not got you paddling around in open-toed sandals and with solar cells on your cottage roof.

Temperature_InterglacialsThe third risk, the next ice age, is not really a risk at all, but a racing certainty. We are presently in an inter-glacial age, and nobody seems to know when and how fast the next ice age will hit us. But for this one, there will be plenty of warning – ice ages happen slowly, and there is really no risk at all that the likes of Al Gore will still be bleating on about global warming when the whole of North America is covered in ice. In the past, interglacial periods tend to last about 10,000 years, and we are already about 11,000 years into this one. So it would seem that we are already overdue for the next ice age to cut in.

doomsday clockAgainst this background, the doom mongers who have their “Doomsday Clock” to try to persuade us that we are on the verge of destroying the planet by our own human activity really do look decidedly silly. The very notion of midnight as the moment of Armageddon, when we all turn into pumpkins, owes more to fairy tales like Cinderella than real science.

So where do you stand on all of this? Let us try a hypothetical question. Suppose there is a decent sized volcano or meteor hit – not enough to cause a complete global catastrophe, but enough to cause massive food shortages around the world. Something like the Toba eruption about 70,000 years ago which seems to have caused a global volcanic winter of maybe 10 years duration (some would say that the cooling episode which resulted but lasted for a millennium). And suppose the genetic engineers had come up with a crop that is so drought tolerant that the whole of the desert areas of northern Africa and the Middle East could be turned into productive farmland. Would you welcome the genetically engineered crops, or not? If not, you would be putting yourself firmly in the camp of hard-wired fanatics. But that does not mean that you would be stupid. With more and more ice crippling the higher latitudes, you would realise that you would have to drop the polar bear is a symbol for your beliefs. You would need something that looks cute, and you would need something whose habitat is under threat from all of this additional farmland. The fennec fox would be perfect. With much less desert, it would certainly become endangered.

In fact, on the precautionary principle, you’d better start getting posters printed up now with pictures of the fennec fox on it, because when the cold comes, the pine forests will go, and paper will be in very short supply indeed.

For the rest of us, the sensible precaution would be getting on with developing nuclear power and genetic crops as fast as possible.

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