Facts about global warming that you should keep for yourself

“The way we see the problem is the problem.” (Covey)

I don’t get invited to parties very often. That is, in part, because I cultivate aggressively critical thinking. My wife will testify that I am doubter, an annoying skeptic. When I apply myself to global warming, I get called a denier because I do not believe what I am told.

Fear not dear reader: I believe that human beings are increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. I believe that CO2 is greenhouse gas, and that it is contributing to an increase in our global temperature.

So why do I get called a denier? Because of a few forbidden thoughts:

  • China and the USA are unlikely to reduce their use of oil before better energy sources are invented. It seems that global-warming politics has rewarded a few individuals, and justify many international conferences, but little concrete progress has been made. We have never had such high carbon emissions despite a worldwide recession. Perhaps we need more engineering and less politics? (Update 2014: Since I wrote these lines, the USA did reduce their use of oil and coal thanks to increased use of shale gas.)
  • While CO2 is a greenhouse gas, water vapor and cloud cover are much more important factor in determining our global temperature:

    In round numbers, water vapor accounts for about 50% of Earth’s greenhouse effect, with clouds contributing 25%, CO2 20% (Lacis, et al., 2010)

    Many global warming models rely on some kind of feedback effect whereas CO2 increases slightly the temperature which then decreases the cloud cover. Predicting cloud cover might be more difficult than predicting CO2 production. In any case, climate predictions are no joke: it is difficult to get it right.

    So how did the global-warming predictions fared in the past? Let us look at the predictions made in 1990: they predicted an increase in temperature of 0.3 °C per decade, with an uncertainty range of 0.2 °C to 0.5 °C per decade.

    Under the IPCC Business-as-Usual (Scenario A) emissions of greenhouse gases, a rate of increase of global mean temperature during the next century of about 0.3 °C per decade (with an uncertainty range of 0.2 °C to 0.5 °C per decade), this is greater than that seen over the past 10,000 years. (IPCC report 1990)

    Yet less than 0.2 °C of warming per decade was observed. To be blunt, they got it flat wrong. Currently, they are predicting an increase of 0.2 °C per decade from this point forward (see John Baez, 2012).

    For the next two decades, a warming of about 0.2 °C per decade is projected for a range of SRES emission scenarios. Even if the concentrations of all greenhouse gases and aerosols had been kept constant at year 2000 levels, a further warming of about 0.1 °C per decade would be expected. (IPCC 2007)

    Will the predictions pan out this time?

    (Update (2014): Here is what the latest (2013) IPCC report states:

    The observed global-mean surface temperature (GMST) has shown a much smaller increasing linear trend over the past 15 years than over the past 30 to 60 years. Depending on the observational data set, the GMST trend over 1998–2012 is estimated to be around one-third to one-half of the trend over 1951–2012. For example, in HadCRUT4 the trend is 0.04 °C per decade over 1998–2012, compared to 0.11 °C per decade over 1951–2012. (IPCC 2013)

    As far as I can tell, they are no longer making any prediction (as of 2014).)

    I am not nitpicking. A common way to test one’s understanding is to make predictions and check then against reality. If your predictions do not pan out, then something is wrong in your understanding. It does not matter if there is a wide consensus that you are, ultimately, right. If I am asked to believe that you can predict what will happen 100 years in the future, I would like to see some easier prediction working out first.

  • Still. Earth is getting warmer.

    How worrisome is an increase of temperatures by 0.2 °C per decade? The Roman Empire thrived under temperatures higher by about 1 °C (+1.05 °C, with respect to the 1951–1980 mean). Thus, it seems we can take some warming without dying off. What about 100 years in the future?

    Well, before we worry about what the predictions say about 100 years in the future, remember that the climate predictions from 1990 did not pan out.

  • Still. Clearly, there is a limit to how much warming the Earth can take.

    Even if we were to adopt alternative energies in 50 years, decades of CO2 production might still kill us.

    However, there are alternatives to banning oil production: solar radiation management. We might be able to setup space mirrors or otherwise increasing the reflectivity of our atmosphere. We can also seed the ocean with iron: spreading a tiny quantity of iron in the water creates a bloom of algal bloom which later sinks to the bottom of the sea. Obviously, we cannot hope to both keep pumping CO2 in the atmosphere, and correct for it afterward: this could quickly become economically infeasible. But keep in mind that we will soon run out of cheap oil in any case.

  • But won’t we suffer due to poor crops in the near future? Maybe not.

    Increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere may increase the production of crops, sometimes very significantly. This is hardly surprising if you know that photosynthesis turns CO2 into plants. Effectively, extra CO2 acts as a fertilizer.


    There is a positive effect of CO2 enrichment on yield and water use efficiency. If atmospheric CO2 concentration reaches nearly 600 ppm, wheat and maize yields will increase 38% and 12% and water use efficiencies will improve 40% and 25% respectively, in comparison to those without CO2 fertilization. (…) Under future climate change scenarios, CO2 enriching can effectively alleviate the impact of temperature increase on crop yield. (…) The impact of CO2 fertilization on crops is far more than that of temperature. (Tao et al., 2008)

    Yet what did the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change state in its 2007 report?

    By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.

    What backs this alarming statement?

    The origin of this claim was a report written for a Canadian advocacy group by Ali Agoumi, a Moroccan academic who draws part of his current income from advising on how to make applications for “carbon credits”. As his primary sources he cited reports for three North African governments. But none of these remotely supported what he wrote. The nearest any got to providing evidence for his claim was one for the Moroccan government, which said that in serious drought years, cereal yields might be reduced by 50 per cent. The report for the Algerian government, on the other hand, predicted that, on current projections, “agricultural production will more than double by 2020”. (The Telegraph, 2010)

    That is bad science.

Summary: Global warming experts have yet to make any real progress in solving global warming. They have a tendency to be alarmist and dogmatic. We will invent new technologies, new crops, new weather control systems. Meanwhile, having more CO2 in the atmosphere, and having a moderate warming period might not be a bad thing.

Update: Though I think we must urgently take charge of our climate, I agree with many of the points raised by Richard Lindzen in a talk that happened after this blog post was published.

42 thoughts on “Facts about global warming that you should keep for yourself”

  1. Some points:

    EU climate strategy is based on the idea that if politicians change the economic incentives, people will invest more into developing solutions to cope with the climate change. When the rich countries do that, the rest of the world can then use the results as well.

    Large-scale geoengineering is generally considered a last-ditch effort to fight global warming. It more or less means trading global warming to another kind of climate change. If we cannot even predict accurately the effects of relatively slow global warming, there is no way we could predict the results of deliberate climate manipulation.

    Detailed arguments generally do not work in politics. This is the way people are. In a heavily polarized debate such as climate change, you first have to establish which side you are on, before you can start discussing the details.

  2. While you ask an interesting series of questions and raise good points I think perhaps your background as a computer scientist is shining through. Meteorology and climate science is not filled with engineers looking for solutions. It’s filled with scientists observing, model building and attempting to make predictions of a notoriously chaotic system.

    Global warming experts are almost certainly not the people that will generate the solutions. They are the people highlighting the problem. It’s hard to claim they haven’t done that – whether or not you believe what they say you know global warming is considered to be a problem by many. Engineers will ultimately be the people that come up with solutions. Some of your suggestions possibly, or something else. The global warming experts will, right or wrong, be the people trying to model the impact of the solutions on the climate to see if it will work.

    Depending on where you live, you may find there are reasonable alternatives to oil. Biodiesel, electric cars, wind-farms and the like. They’re not easy to access – and that’s political in some countries, along with decisions to ignore some harsh truths like rising sea levels.

  3. Interesting arguments but I think you’re missing something a bit more fundamental regarding climate change. It isn’t about “frying to death” or “mass starvation.”

    The biggest concern, I have at least, with climate change is increases in sea level due to polar cap melting. Now, if you look at the science of that, the polar ice caps are shrinking at a GREATER rate than originally predicated [1].

    Pragmatically speaking, humans generally like to cluster around bodies of water. Many of our major cities happen to be located on them. Sure we won’t have mass starvation, but what will happen if: London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, Vancouver, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, etc are submerged to various degrees? Nothing good, I’ll tell you. It’ll be the largest displacement of humanity in this planet’s history.

    So yea, that’s what I worry about — and hoping for a Deus Ex Machina moment in real life is not the responsible thing to do.

    [1] http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/thick-melt.html

  4. Daniel – that’s an interesting and well-grounded take on the problems we face (and the uncertainty with prediction). However, as others have observed, your views on solutions / responses (rather than the problems) to the challenges associated with climate and energy issues might not be as well grounded.

    Since you seem to be open minded about this, I recommend that you check out physicist Tom Murphy’s blog, Do The Math. In particular, check out this post on alternative energy options, on the “Energy Trap”, on future directions, and all of the many links in each. Murphy’s analysis makes it clear that we’re boxed in on more than one side and won’t have the energy to undertake large-scale engineering efforts to respond to climate change or energy challenges.

  5. Interesting. Here’s a few considerations:

    1) the population WILL grow exponentially (logrithmically?) – http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=earth%27s+population

    2) there may NOT be an engineering solution to the need for cheap, abundant energy to meet that demand. This is a real problem since current political attitudes seem to suggest there will be a magic bullet

    3) the people that will make problematic decisions for our environment will likely be long dead before the impacts are fully realised. This is why we need organisations like UNESCO

    4) when we realise a solution to the global energy/climate change problem, it will most likely be energy companies that own/control it. I recall reading that some of the biggest polluters are also some of the largest investors in renewable energy (don’t quote me on that)

    5) we can think of energy companies as the bad guys, but ultimately we consume their product. While this requires an engineering solution, there is an element of personal responsibility required (car-pooling, riding a bike, etc.)

  6. @Nick

    Sure we won’t have mass starvation, but what will happen if: London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, Vancouver, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, etc are submerged to various degrees?

    If you are absolutely confident that there is a an insurmountable threat to these coastal cities, there is a great business opportunity. Just sell the coastal land short and go long on nearby high points.

    If enough people believe as you do, all future investments will be well above sea level.

  7. It is true that, even though climate change is a reality that might bring a lot of trouble including water shortage, submerging cities, and frequent hurricanes, our major problem is, perhaps, an enormous consumption rate. Crude oil is going to end rather quickly and I don’t want to think about all the ecological consequences that would entail mass tar sand developments. As far as I remember, tar sands are plaguing Canada already.

    It is crucial to change our lifestyle, but there is little political will to achieve this goal. Because doing so will equal to a political suicide.

  8. @varuni

    I’ve seen this video before, but it is simplistic.

    I’m entirely in favor of taking action against climate change. Read my blog post: I wrote that I also believe that we have to deal with this threat urgently.

    On a personal note, I rarely fly, I almost never take my car (and I wouldn’t own a car at all if I could). My carbon footprint is well below average for a Canadian.

    This being said, reducing our use of fossil fuel on a large scale is just not feasible on the short term, and it is almost unavoidable on the long term because we’ll run out of inexpensive sources. So I advocate we seek other solutions. Solar radiation management seems like a promising solution. We need to have a better control on our climate for long term survival.

  9. @Daniel
    If you are absolutely confident that there is a an insurmountable threat to these coastal cities, there is a great business opportunity. Just sell the coastal land short and go long on nearby high points.

    That is just not reasonable. There are trillions of dollars of development on the water. Sure, I can personally hedge myself but that’s not really pragmatic on a global scale. How does the city of London hedge itself? How does NYC’s skyscrapers hedge themselves? They’re *already* there. The development has already happen. How is Manhattan or Hong Kong going to “move itself?”

    I mean, sure, it works in theory — but it isn’t pragmatic in the real world.

  10. @Nick

    If people really thought there was a serious chance that New York City might be unlivable in 20 or 30 years, property prices would be affected. It is not.

    We know how to build cities below sea level (e.g., the Netherlands, New Orleans and so on). We can build sea walls and dykes. We can make buildings flood-proof.

    In 30 years, New York City (and other major cities) will be just fine. They may be partly surrounded by walls, and you may see high tech sewer systems… but citizens won’t be drowning in the sea.

    There is a cost for adapting, of course, but you will not have to evacuate the wealthy coastal cities.

  11. Perhaps there will be a technical solution to slow down the warming process. However, that does not matter a lot because the problem per es is not engineering based but political.
    Have nice day
    Marcel

  12. @Downes

    0.3 plus minus 0.1 means that you expect a range from 0.2 to 0.4. If you get less than 0.2, say 0.15, you are outside your prediction range.

    They’ve since revised their predictions from 0.3 C per decade to 0.2 C which means that the original predictions were too high.

    I think there is widespread acknowledgement that the predictions made in 1990 did not pan out.

    You just don’t see people talking about it precisely for the reasons outlined by Jouni:

    “Detailed arguments generally do not work in politics. This is the way people are. In a heavily polarized debate such as climate change, you first have to establish which side you are on, before you can start discussing the details.”

  13. Some here have commented that in fact although detection of this problem is a scientific problem, and though Daniel proposes that there are or will be engineering solutions, others have noted that nothing will happen without political will.

    As always, we are entrenched in the status quo because those in power (and by in power, I mean with enormous money at their disposal) are inherently entrenched in the status quo. They make loads of money now – so they wish to keep things the way they are right now. Therefore, they press the political process as much as they can to maintain their advantage.

    The huge sums spent on trying to bury the issue of climate change creates the polarization. If one “side” is spending billions on lobbying, advertising and outright buying science chairs at universities, then necessarily, the none-systematically funded opposition must fight back and take the other “side”. It is a canard of the first order that climate change scientists (by and large) are part of some well funded self serving lobby. Here in Canada, the Federal Government has taken clear aim at environmental science as something it wants to withdraw all funding from, precisely because that government is in the pay of big oil. Scientists are not some homogenous body of people. There are some (most) who are legitimate, ethical people who work with integrity and skepticism. There are some (a few) who work (mostly) for fame and notoriety. There are others who will take whatever money they can get, and select the facts to suit the audience. Big oil has little trouble finding at least a few obscure scientists to back up their lies.

    As for your characterization of the numbers – you too are seeking sensationalism. To claim that a prediction of .3 is flat out wrong when the results came out to .2 is to misrepresent. Flat out wrong would (to me and other ordinary speakers of English) see the temperature go in the other direction. Which it patently did not.

    Inshort – they predicted global warming of .3. They got .2. They were right, but the amount was off. They predicted polar shrinkage of a certain amount. They got almost double that. They were right, but the rate was off. All this says is that prediction is difficult business. It also says that the underlying models need refinement. However, governments of western countries are burying there collective heads in the sand and un-funding climate research like there is no tomorrow.

    Just because a certain amount of global warming won’t be a disaster everywhere on the planet right away, or here specifically, doesn’t mean that we will ultimately pay a very high price for ignoring the problem. Hoping that some super-hero scientist will save us at the last moment is not a plan of action. Especially when we are busy discrediting the very people you expect to solve the problem once it is truly out of hand.

  14. We are agreed that a better plan is required. We are agreed that telling China or India to stop burning oil is not going to happen. We are agreed that asking developed countries to simply scale back their emissions by a quite reasonable amount has not happened.

    However, I would posit that the relatively small amount of investment already spent in new energy technology, and conservation has already past a tipping point. Individuals and Companies have noted the significant savings and improved production efficiencies from their “green” efforts. We will see acceleration of energy efficiencies as companies engage in the race to reduce their energy costs, and technologies improve as production increases.

    In a way reminiscent of the (unexpected) slowing of population growth (due to urbanization), we will probably see a reduction in energy use as companies compete to become more efficient, especially in the face of rising energy and energy distribution costs.

  15. _There is a qualitative difference between an increase in temperature by 0.3C to 0.5 C per decade and an increase between 0.1C to 0.2C per decade. _

    No, the difference is quantitative. It is litterally a difference of quantity. Changing the meaning of words in the language is not an acceptable way to bolster your argument. You have some good points. Do not tarnish them with hyperbole.

  16. Purely as a mather of mathematics, could you explain this to me?

    > they predicted an increase in temperature of 0.3C per decade, plus minus 0.1C. Yet less than 0.2C of warming per decade was observed. To be blunt, they got it flat wrong.

    To my observation, when you make a prediction with a margin of error, and the result falls within that margin of error, you were not wrong. You were right. So I’m not understanding how you say this is wrong.

    This may seem like a minor point, however it does seem to me in this post that you are trying too hard to be a denialist, sometimes at the expense of your own sharp analytical skills. IMO.

  17. @Downes

    And thanks for calling names on me. That people call me a “denier” (or an heretic) because I question the dogma was the point of this blog post.

    Note that I’m pretty sure I got the science and the facts right, or at least, all my statements are fully backed.

    It is a verifiable fact that IPCC got its prediction wrong in 1990. Alluding to it does not amount to “denying” anything… except maybe the dogma.

    That is, to be clear, the opposite of what science is. Science is not based on votes and authority. Real science happens when real people ask questions irrespective of what they’ve been told.

  18. @Daniel

    That is not how margins of error usually work.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margin_of_error

    They do not represent a prediction of an absolute bound which cannot be broken. If you measure something outside of your predicted margin of error, it doesn’t by itself mean the prediction was wrong. It can simply mean you were (un)lucky.

    The predicton could still be perfectly valid and we could just as easily see an upwards fluctuation in the next decade. Or we might not. We don’t know, just as we don’t know when betting on a roulette wheel based on a previous throw.

    What we do know is that people have carefully modelled the temperature over a very long time and that they are still (on a long time scale) predicting bad things of a large magnitude.

    You say “New York will be fine! We’ll just build dykes, no humanitarian disaster.”

    That is fine for “you” (the western world). What of Bangladesh? .. and many other (very populous) parts of the world which are not profiting from the destruction of it. They won’t be able to afford to fix the serious problem when it arrives.

  19. @Physicist

    So, the IPCC was unlucky and not wrong in 1990, then the should stick with their predictions (as they were not wrong).

    Yet compare what they wrote in 1990…

    increase of global mean temperature (…) of about 0.3C per decade (with an uncertainty range of 0.2 to 0.5C per decade)

    with what they wrote in 2007…

    for the next two decades, a warming of about 0.2C per decade is projectedemission scenarios.

    They have revised downward their best guess by 0.1C per decade. Their new prediction (0.2C per decade) is in the extreme low range of their 1990 prediction.

    That is, the best scenario in 1990 has now become the expected scenario.

    Objectively, this is equivalent to admitting that they overestimated the warming in 1990.

    That is fine for “you” (the western world). What of Bangladesh? .. and many other (very populous) parts of the world which are not profiting from the destruction of it. They won’t be able to afford to fix the serious problem when it arrives.

    If we were to ban oil right now, the people who would suffer the most from it and precisely the poorest people.

    In Canada, we could (painfully) switch to alternative energies entirely. There would be a tremendous cost, but it could be done.

    Bangladesh, without oil, would probably see mass starvation.

  20. All this says is that prediction is difficult business.

    There is a qualitative difference between an increase in temperature by 0.3C to 0.5 C per decade and an increase between 0.1C to 0.2C per decade.

    Hoping that some super-hero scientist will save us at the last moment is not a plan of action. Especially when we are busy discrediting the very people you expect to solve the problem once it is truly out of hand.

    But they are not saving us!

    Their plan is to reduce the use of fossil fuel through politics. This path is objectively a failure.

    China will simply not stop burning oil until they have a cheaper and better alternative.

    We need a better plan.

  21. @Daniel

    You’re still abusing the notion of a margin of error. You still talk of the upper and lower bounds as though they are concrete walls. They are not, the probability of exceeding 1 standard deviation in either direction is around 1 in 3. That is not remotely unlikely.

    I agree that the estimates have changed. I disagree with the idea that they are wildly inconsistent with previous estimates. After a “knowledge update” (of a couple of decades passing), they have moved the central value of the prediction downwards by one standard deviation. We know more now than we did then. This new estimate is still statistically consistent with the previous estimate.

    Please excuse my hyperbole from introducing Bangladesh as an example. I think we agree on the basic idea that something needs to be done. I didn’t mention in my previous post what I thought that might be; that’s because I don’t know. I agree that banning the use of Oil would not be in their best interests.

    What we do know is that things are bad. Just because the old prediction turned out to be one margin-of-error too high doesn’t invalidate them, nor does it invalidate the new predictions. We should have some trust in current predictions since we know more now than we did previously. They still say bad things are coming and we need to do a lot of different things to stop it.

    That this will involve politics is unfortunately inevitable. Whatever you do to solve this problem requires interactions between people.

  22. As for your second comment… with an increase of 0.3C to 0.5 C per decade… we are facing a collapse of our civilization within my lifetime… I’m not sure we can survive a temperature gain of 2C… an increase between 0.1C to 0.2C per decade means that we are probably not to see a collapse due to global warming in my lifetime. I call this a qualitative difference. In one case, I will get to see us fry, in the other, I won’t.

    In terms of sheer warmth, you may be right as to the timing.

    However, as is already being shown right within the continental US (and Canada), even adding 0.1 to 0.2c per decade when measured as energy difference in an air mass, is a mind boggling number of joules of energy. That energy gets expressed in extreme weather events like Tornadoes and Hurricanes. The insurance companies of the world are already present to the rapidly increasing cost of this type of risk.

    We may find not just lives lost or disrupted, but significant productivity drop, and investment drops due to the increased risk of operating in affected areas – as well as changes in crop distribution, pest distribution (West Nile, Lyme disease anyone?) and other “minor” annoyances.

    You are correct in you note that we have a very long way to go in housing. The sad thing is we not only have the technology to build very, very efficient housing, but it would be at a very small premium over existing costs – but lack the political will to make it a requirement in code. I find it astounding that the UK mandates triple glazing, but we don’t here in Canada.

  23. @Dominic

    I entirely agree with your second last comment. We urgently need to develop new technology so we can save energy and dismiss fossil fuel. And we are making decent progress.

    This statement is absolutely correct: we will probably see a reduction in energy use as companies compete to become more efficient, especially in the face of rising energy and energy distribution costs.

    I’m always amazed at how efficient our cars and computers have become. We can do so much more with housing… Telework could do away with much of our driving and flying. We are amazingly wasteful.

    As for your second comment… with an increase of 0.3C to 0.5 C per decade… we are facing a collapse of our civilization within my lifetime… I’m not sure we can survive a temperature gain of 2C… an increase between 0.1C to 0.2C per decade means that we are probably not to see a collapse due to global warming in my lifetime. I call this a qualitative difference. In one case, I will get to see us fry, in the other, I won’t.

  24. This is why I don’t find comfort in your logic, consider this:

    Early days of discover of AIDS. We have some knowledge that this virus suppresses the immune systems but have no good models of how the disease plays out over time. But we do know of some symptomatic intervention that can mitigate the adverse effects of suppressed immune system. Now what you are proposing is that just because we do of have strong predictive models yet, we hold back on symptomatic intervention.

    Or consider any other potentially life threatening disease for which no sure shot diagnostic tests are available, but symptomatic cures are. Does it make sense to hold off treatment till we are absolutely sure of the diagnosis.

    If that were so rabies would be untreatable. By the time one can diagnose rabies in the person, its already too late, given our present day medical technology. That is why we intervene even when we do not know for sure.

    It is also not true that things that have the economics going for it cannot be stopped or slowed down. What is required is political will and consensus. For example there are products that can be produced very cheaply with slave labor, sweat shop labor, but it still has been possible to affect it somewhat.

    But you are right, ultimately it has to be economics. By (artificial) mechanism design one can make unwarranted things more costly. That said it is not always easy to do the right thing. For instance I believe we do the “war aginst drugs” thing wrong.

  25. @srean

    If you are going to make analogies, then use fair ones. What the climate scientists are recommending are political measures that are ineffective. Kyoto is not going to work.

    The proper analogy is that we have people stating :

    “Well, the solution to the AIDS epidemic is clearly that governments have to outlaw sex outside marriage and require future couples to undergo AIDS testing…”

    Yes. Nice. Except that people will not stop having sex. This is a fact.

    Does it make sense to hold off treatment till we are absolutely sure of the diagnosis.

    You are dancing around my main objection. The USA and China will not forgo fossil fuel until they have an economically viable alternative. This is fact. You can deny it just like people who run the war on drugs deny the fact that people will keep using drugs no matter what… but the denial gets nothing done.

  26. I, too, am often labeled as a “denier”, even though I have never denied that the earth appears to be going through a warming cycle, nor that humans have an impact on the environment. However,

    1. The climate change community conveniently ignores the paleoclimate record. Granted, our information about the paleoclimate is somewhat sketchy, but what we can see (illustrated quite nicely in graphics from NOAA in the US) is that apparently, the crisis mongers are worried about reaching levels of CO2 that are insignificant when compared to previous historical levels. Furthermore, the same NOAA data indicate that for the past 10,000 years, global temperatures have been uncommonly stable, when compared with more ancient records. Couple this with the fact that humans began a massive deforestation of Eurasia about 12,000 years ago to make room for expanses of agricultural fields, and one comes to the preliminary conclusion that human activity has actually stabilized the climate.

    2. Every species that has ever lived has extracted resources from the environment and excreted waste into the environment. Left unmolested and remaining stationary, any species will ultimately poison its environment and deplete it of the necessary resources. Humans are no different, just more effective at this natural process than most species. Until one acknowledges that this is a natural tendency of all life forms, rather than something specific to humans, any “solutions” one might propose are most likely going to miss the mark widely.

    3. Politicians have a very bad track record when it comes to solving problems.

    4. One could build two moderate-sized nuclear power plants for about the same amount as is being spent on the carbon sequestration project under way in Illinois- and the nuclear power plants would result in significantly more reduction in CO2 emissions than the Illinois project can ever hope to capture in its lifetime.

    5. A warmer earth is a whole lot more attractive to me than a new ice age. Since the science is so poorly understood, any large-scale attempts at manipulation could very easily result in more damage than good. Again, politicians have a very poor track record when it comes to sorting science from science fantasy.

    If, in fact, the earth is going to warm to the point of impacting society through such effects as rising sea levels, then it would be best to allocate the scarce resources to protecting or relocating threatened populations, rather than investing in pie-in-the-sky projects that at best might have a 50% chance of providing some short-term relief. A warmer climate will open up great expanses of real estate currently not viable for agriculture- just look at a globe, and note how much of Eurasia and the Americas extend into the sub arctic regions- land that is pretty much not usable at today’s temperatures.

    There are far more pressing problems that need attention, than this climate issue. Things like the world-wide collapse of the financial system, issues arising from the expansive growth in urbanization, availability of potable water, diseases that can be cured but are not being addressed (malaria, cholera, antibiotic-resistant pathogens, etc., etc.). Wasting resources on chasing a non-crisis is not very wise…

    Charlie

  27. I’m not sure I understand the importance of climate scientists being alarmists. You clearly agree that global warming is a threat that must urgently be addressed. Shouldn’t we focus instead on solutions?

    Instead of political solutions at the international scale, I prefer focusing on cities and provinces. Consider that 40% of our emissions in Montreal are due to transport. Tramways are an obvious step, especially if using electricity that we obtain via Hydro or Wind.

    Another thing that requires even less political coordination is increasing urban density. More walkable, lively neighbourhoods are the result of good urban planning – the opposite is suburban or exurban communities that tend to auto-dependence.

    While you emphasize your own lifestyle choices, urban planning guides and constrains all our choices.

    More than engineering breakthroughs, another angle of attack is the rapid mainstreaming of existing technology. Both solar and wind have been growing very fast (20-30% per year), and with each doubling costs are driven down. At current rates they will both be cost competitive with oil by 2015-2020, even without increases in oil prices.

    Finally, part of what made cars and housing so efficient is government regulation and information campaigns. Fridges are 20X more efficient than when you were born, in no small part due to the stickers that lets consumers know what the typical consumption will be. About 1/3 of our energy use right now would be eliminated cost-effectively if we could fix broken markets.

  28. I sense a rather harsh tone in your reply(not in your main post), so may be you are projecting some previous discussion you have had with others.

    > The USA and China will not forgo
    > fossil fuel until they have an
    > economically viable alternative

    Agreed, but I contend that there are alternatives within the realms of viability. As of now those solutions will incur higher costs in the short term, that is until usage and research brings the costs down.

    Choices like these always need some political will to back it and speaking about greenhouse effects seems as legitimate as any. If someone over states the risks, I will take that, because someone else is understating it.

    I also agree that analogies are tricky, because none are perfect, and none fit the finer points. But they prove useful to convey a larger picture.

    We may disagree about what is the best way forward, but falling back to the position “we are not absolutely sure yet, so lets just ignore and wait” does not seem like a wise decision to me.

    Intellectually, of course I am open and noncommittal about global warming. Some evidence might come up tomorrow to change my posteriors. but this is not just an intellectual question.

    There are times when one takes steps that are not the unconstrained perfect solution when facing a potentially risky situations. They do even when there is a chance that it was just a false alarm.

    Analogies again: NASA detects probable damage to re-entry vehicle. There is an expensive and time consuming patch that our current imperfect model predicts will improve the probability of success, but not by a lot. There are other mechanisms outside of our control, outside of our means, that can affect improve the probability much more. Should we, or should we not apply the patch.

    Perfect example of a decision making problem under uncertainty.

    This is not a trivial problem to give a solution for when even the probabilities and costs are uncertain, but arguing for the null hypothesis just because there exist other factors with greater influence on the outcome seems faulty to me at the logical level.

    And I am not too sure about what a country will, or will not forgo. I can give you examples of countries giving up, what to them were economically suitable solutions. Again it comes down to political will and clout both external and internal.

    I think one problem here is that the countries are locked in a prisoners dilemma.

    What I am hopeful of is that through a dialog some workable solution will emerge. So I don’t begrudge you your belief. The problem is when the dialog becomes dogmatic and more about who won the argument (the last is not a comment about your post or your reply)

  29. >>Does it make sense to hold off treatment till we are absolutely sure of the diagnosis.

    >You are dancing around my main objection.

    And I could claim the same 🙂

    My interest is not in winning any debate contest but to explore the design space, which I am sure is yours as well.

    So terms like “my objection” “your objection” tends to shift the center of gravity of the discussion adversely, I think.

  30. @Haran

    I’m not sure I understand the importance of climate scientists being alarmists.

    Honestly? Because I fight dogmatic people every chance I get. It is sort of my quest in life to challenge dogma whenever I spot it.

    It is a recurring theme on my blog.

    Also, I am a contrarian by nature.

    Consider that 40% of our emissions in Montreal are due to transport.

    Yes. But, let us face it, people will keep flying to Rio to chat about how we must curb carbon emissions.

    Finally, part of what made cars and housing so efficient is government regulation and information campaigns.

    That’s debatable. American car makers switched from marketing cars to marketing SUVs as unintended effect of fuel efficiency regulations. Houses in Canada are terrible as far as heat efficiency goes… the construction code is decades behind technologically.

    Both solar and wind have been growing very fast (20-30% per year), and with each doubling costs are driven down. At current rates they will both be cost competitive with oil by 2015-2020, even without increases in oil prices.

    If so, then people will stop using oil on their own and the problem will have been solved. Indeed, electricity is much nicer than oil if you have in abundance.

    About 1/3 of our energy use right now would be eliminated cost-effectively if we could fix broken markets.

    I totally agree that we can (and probably will) gain back 1/3 of our energy just with better use of our technology.

  31. @srean

    I do not advocate that we wait. In fact, I am stressing the urgency of our predicament. We must take charge of the climate.

    I simply do not agree that there is only one way. And I don’t agree that CO2 is a pollutant.

  32. Then we entirely agree, except perhaps the C02 bit.

    “Pollutant” is just a name. Its a gas that possesses disruptive properties, when present over and beyond a certain concentration. That is true of just about anything. However, we do not know what is safe concentration for everything and hence take comfort in a factor of safety, just as in any engineering solution.

  33. @David

    Airplane contrails are indeed having a huge effect on the climate, in part because they tend to create clouds (contrail clouds). But this has been known for a long time and climate scientists should take it into account in their computations. However, it is possible that they fail to take it into account properly. It could, indeed, explain part of the discrepancy.

    Possibly, we could imagine designing new airplanes that help control the climate.

  34. re: pollutant, almost anything *in too high a concentration* is bad news.

    People fall asleep when CO2 concentrations are too high – it happened at an university library I attended: the air intake / outtake were too close to each other!

    Too much of a good thing at the wrong place is also a pollutant, e.g. Ozone. I’d love to see more, just not at ground level.

    I’ve no problem with being contrarian, but to have a productive discussion, we can’t go on name-calling (e.g. calling Lemire a denier) or changing definitions. And Daniel, I’m going to call you out for a tu quoque:

    “Yes. But, let us face it, people will keep flying to Rio to chat about how we must curb carbon emissions.”

    Air travel is a really tricky one; even George Monbiot threw his hands up at that one. Yet it’s almost an order of magnitude less important in Montreal than land transport. That some people will continue flying is not a reason to stop exploring the issue.

  35. That 70% figure comes from http://transitionculture.org/wp-content/uploads/kevin-anderson-2.ppt

    It assumes air travel emissions continue to grow roughly linearly while overal emissions go down from a peak of 180 MtC to about 40 MtC in 2030. By then air travel would cause 28 MtC, up from 17MtC today, or 7% of current emissions.

    Even if air travel does not grow, it would still represent 40%+ of emissions by 2030 IFF there’s an overall 3% per year reduction.

    I’m not sure what your point is here? Are you contradicting my assertion, implying that reducing other sources of emissions is hopeless because we won’t be able to reduce air travel emissions?

  36. @Haran

    In the last ten years, we have just about doubled the number of passengers carried by airplanes. We just spent nearly a billion dollar to expand the Montreal airport. It is inconsistent with a belief that we are headed toward a reduction of carbon emissions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *