Friday, September 08, 2006

So Permafrost Isn't Permanent?

Complexity in the Field
By J.B. Ruhl
Post 4

A friend of mine in the FSU Oceanogrpahy Department, Jeff Chanton, is a co-author of the paper that is just out in Nature about the discovery that methane and other greenhouse gases are escaping from thawing permafrost at rates five times that previously believed to be the case. This is not a good thing. Methane is a particularly nasty greenhouse gas, and other research from a year ago found that permafrost has a lot more of it, a lot more of it, stored in frozen soils than was believed. In other words, there's more of it stored than we thought, and it's being released faster than we thought. Granted, this does not mean we'll be choking on methane next week, or even next decade, but, as Jeff explained in terms that make a complex system's heart melt, this is a "positive feedback to global warming," so as it gets warmer, the methane realease rate increases, which makes it even warmer, which...well, you get the picture.

The message for law? As an environmental lawyer, it's distressing to me that the message is, good luck. As with invasive species (a prior post) and the shifting ocean currents (a prior post), environmental law will be a band-aid at best. I'm not saying we shouldn't address behaviors that exacerbate problems like these, but the complex system forces at play here are beastly in proportion to what environmental law can hope to accomplish. The implications for law over time are going to fall more heavily in fields such as insurance, contracts, torts, and other domains that are brought to bear when settled expectations of economic and social life experience transition. Relating to my prior post on societal collapse, it is problems like these, moreover, that really tap into society's reserve problem-solving capital.

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