December 21, 2009

Climate Musings

There were quite few comments on my Climategate post last week. There was a bit more I wanted to say and will do so here.

My bottom line message was that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) IS a major problem, but one that has received considerable hype from both "sides." One side is convinced, for good reason, that AGW is a real problem, but is not afraid to dramatize the threat a bit or to see the "other side" in threatening terms. The other believes the whole business is some kind of false science inspired by some left wind conspiracy. Or they repeat ideas that don't hold water under examination: e.g., that since the earth has had climate cycles before, we can't pin changes on greenhouse gases. Or that since we can't forecast weather well next week, how can we predict climate change fifty years from now? Or that there can't be global warming caused by man because the earth's temperatures haven't changed much during the last 5-10 years.

If we had some magic technical fix for AGW (e.g., a cheap and effective process to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, or fusion power was made practical tomorrow) that would still not fix the really serious problem...sustainability. There is simply too many people on our planet and there will soon be a lot more. All want to enjoy the high standard of living in the western world--and how can we deny them what we have? We can't--they have as much right as we do for a comfortable life. We are using up the planets fresh water, exhausting the soils, polluting the air and ocean, using up limited resources (like oil)..the list goes on and on. Our species can't expand our numbers forever and we have to find a way to live indefinitely with the planet's carrying capacity.

Getting back to the Copenhagen meeting. It has been clear for a long time that no nation is willing to hurt its economic development in the short term for ameliorating a theoretical problem mainly in the future. Kyoto was pretty much of a joke in terms of doing anything serious and the agreement of last week lacks concrete measures. Even people who are emotionally committed to doing something about AGW are unwilling to change their personal lives in a meaningful way. How many global warming activists are jetting across the world for seemingly endless meetings? I know some with vacation homes--the ultimate waste of resources. If such committed people won't sacrifice and are not a little hypocritical, how can we expect others to?

Lets be honest with ourselves...there is only a few ways left to proceed now:

1. Put large amount of resources into technological improvements in energy efficiency, new energy sources, removal of Co2 from the atmosphere, etc. Make it cost effective and NO SACRIFICE to reduce fossil fuel emission. Green industry can be a boon for everyone. The U.S. is very rich in solar and wind energy...we are just scratching the surface. And we and much of the world waste huge amounts of energy. Obama should make this a priority---a Manhattan Project like effort.

2. Take serious steps on adaption--making the changes necessary to reduce the impacts of global warming and to take advantage of the good things that go with it. And there will be good things. The Canadians and Russians are going see vast areas opening up to agriculture. Washington State wines will get even better (sorry Californians).

Taking both approaches will help give us time to deal with the overarching problem...sustainability and overpopulation.

But there is something else we have to do educate ourselves better. Too many people on both sides of this are expressing opinions without really understanding what they are talking about. The climate system is extraordinarily complex and people learn a few facts and think they understand more than they do. For example, most people don't understand about natural the atmosphere has variations without any external cause, like increasing greenhouse gases. Thus, it is possible for temperatures to remain steady or even decline for a few years under increasing greenhouse gases...if the natural variability is on a downward turn. A year ago I explained this to a leading "free market" environmentalist who never understood this fact....I could see the impact this simple (or not so simple) idea had. And global warming activists need to do some learning many times have I heard simplistic arguments that warmer temperatures will cause increased humidity and increased severe precipitation everywhere. Just not true.

And scientists must do a far better job at explaining an open and non-patronizing way. Communication has to be seen as an essential part of our job, and we need to be more open with the uncertainties--what we are not sure about.


  1. The Apollo Program is probably a better analogy than the Manhattan Project.

    Seriously though, making energy efficiency and independence a national priority would have untold positive benefits on our country's scientific and engineering resources, technological development, foreign policy, military, job market, and so on.

  2. Cliff,
    I agree, adaptation and new technology can help a great deal. Sustainability will be trickier; how to prevent us trading one harmful addiction for another? People do it all the time. First we use up the oil, then the silicon? I don't know. It seems like it's worth it to be more thoughtful with the "Green Revolution" than people were with the Industrial Revolution.

    Scientists have another important role to play -- and you're doing it (so, thank you). People need to be EDUCATED about what they can do. Many people WANT to do the right thing but don't know where to start beyond some obvious things (reducing car trips, no plastic bags, etc.) that are not always easy to implement.

    If science can come up with a short and easy list of things for people to really focus on -- GENERATE LESS TRASH, USE LESS ENERGY -- it will help people of good will make some changes.

    @Aaron, I couldn't agree more... let's have a new Apollo program, not another Manhattan Project. :-)

  3. Excellent follow-up, Cliff, and good points from those preceding comments. Allow me to re-emphasize one of Cliff's fundamental arguments. Everything else is irrelevant if we can't control human population growth. It doesn't matter what your environmental issues is. Frankly, it doesn't matter what most of your non-environmental issues are. The planet already has too many humans, and too many human dependent stresses, whether it be cows or water. Whatever planetary stressor you choose, it gets worse with more people, especially those who want to live the wealthy, consumptive western lifestyle. How to address this issue.....makes Copenhagen seem not so difficult.

  4. Is it true that the notion of "global warming" can be conceptualized in a thermodynamic framework? In other words, as the temperature of the atmosphere increases (i.e. energy added to a more or less closed system), the entropy of the system increases, thereby causing greater extremes of weather/temperature/etc while average change may be small?

  5. Hi Cliff,

    I'd be really interested in how you respond to those who insist that avoiding sacrifice is impossible -- for instance, people like Michael Ruppert, who spread the idea that Peak Oil will result in such a forced change in our way of life that it will inevitably lead to the collapse of modern civilization.

  6. I agree on communication, the last point you made in your post.

    Scientists appear to do a poor job of explaining their work to the general public. This is through no fault of their own. The misunderstanding is usually a breakdown in understanding between the scientist, who is the expert, and the reporter, the Jack or Jill of all trades.

    There are plenty of out-of-work journalists who could help communicate what scientists are doing to the general public.

  7. Cliff is right, people won't change their behavior out of the "right" thing to do.

    The fastest way to get people to change their behavior and optimize is to have it have a cost. The cap-and-trade and carbon taxes both do this. When something is more costly, people use it more wisely and get creative and come up with cheaper ways to solve the same problems.

    I'm actually fascinated by the Republican attack on cap-and-trade because its an idea right out of conservative thinking on market-based alternatives to regulation. But I suppose they have to have something to attack.

    But I have long held that there's a societal and public cost to pollution that is hidden from the producers - we've subsidized it for years. This type of front-loading of the costs does two things, it puts the burden of paying for the pollution on the producers and it provide cost incentives to change behavior.

    Nice discussion Cliff - thanks. (Hoping I get your book under the tree this year.)

  8. I'm not a meteorologist, nor a scientist so this is just my opinion.

    Personally, I feel humankind rises to the occasion mainly after the train has already wrecked. Preventative maintenance is not in our books. In so far as Global Warming goes... we're far from a "wrecked train" to see any serious actions taken. By the time that occurs (and in my humble opinion, we're already beyond the 'tipping point'), it will be too late.

    So my response is, Global Climate Change is going to happen and it's no longer a matter of "If". So let's start to make the necessary adjustments to accommodate the change. I too believe there are many benefits to warming but at a cost. Now I'm not saying we should give up, far from it. But all this talk about changing now on carbon emissions before it's too late (define "too late"), seem a bit moot. Despite the arguments over climate change, we should still promote being green because it's a healthier way to live.

    On the optimistic side... if I had to choose between warming or cooling, I'm glad it's warming. If it were cooling, I think we'd be in for some serious hurt down the road & I think the consequence would be a lot more dire than warming.

  9. "Everything else is irrelevant if we can't control human population growth."

    "If science can come up with a short and easy list of things for people to really focus will help people of good will make some changes."

    and the answer is...
    Have no children, one child, or at most, two children. There is no other solution. I chose zero.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Cliff, could you comment on the recent lack of sunspot activity and how it might contribute to a new "minimum"? Is that even a factor in the science of global climate change?
    Thank you.

  12. Snapdragon...the sunspot cycle did not restart as expect and right now the number are far below the predictions of a year or two ago. What are the implications for climate? We do know that the eleven year sunspot cycle influences output from the sun...but only in a very small way (.1%)...not enough to neutralize global warming. But could there be other mechanisms that could amplify the solar effects? Some have suggested how that might happen by changing the number of cloud condensation nuclei. Lots of unknowns...cliff

  13. "and the answer is...
    Have no children, one child, or at most, two children. There is no other solution. I chose zero."

    Of course, that creates its own issues around social policy and welfare. For instance, who takes care of you as you age? That's why I nickname my kids "Social" and "Security". I also named my now passed on dog as "Emergency Ration"

  14. Cliff, As an AGW skeptic, I appreciate your balanced approach towards your interpretation of climate science. My biggest frustration comes from those that try to stifle any kind of debate and choose to ridicule others who don't share their view. (Yes, this goes both ways!) However, there are hundreds of well qualified climate and atmospheric experts who do not believe recent warming is caused by man. Further more, they have very compelling arguments that are rarely heard in the mainstream media. Before we allow our government to spend billions of OUR tax dollars on inconclusive science, why not allow a period of open, honest, debate and dialogue. Give the American people an opportunity to make up our own minds rather than trust some bureaucrat or agenda bent news anchor to do the thinking for us. You can lead the way on this cliff! Thanks again for your great blog.

  15. Weatherfreak,
    I would really doubt you could find hundreds of atmospheric scientists who don't think AGW is a major problem. The question is not what has happened in the last decade or so, the major question is what will happen in the future. I can't stress enough...just some scientists may have hyped past AGW previously and the some individuals had inappropriate emails, that DOES NOT mean AGW is nonsense. ...cliff

  16. There's at least one solar researcher who is speculating that TSI is more stable that previously believed, and that the change in the correlation between F10.7 microwaves and sunspot numbers is due to an underreporting of sunspots as stronger magentic fields in sunspots may due to high magnetic fields and temperatures suppressing lines in the sunspots.

    Clearly, this minimum was a low minimum, but it remains to be seen if the SC24 maximum is all that significantly lower in TSI than SC23 (even though the visible sunspot number may be significantly lower). And we're still looking at a most likely pattern for SC24 as being like 1900-era solar cycles, and not even a Dalton minimum, much less a Maunder minimum. The sun is clearly behaving differently from how it has in the past 50 years, but the jury is out as to if it'll be climactically significant at all.

    As for Cosmic Rays and Clouds this has come up over and over again. Keeps on getting rebutted by climate scientists over at RealClimate, and there still seems to not be anything of any useful substance under it:

    Part of the problem is that we keep on treating ideas like the cosmic ray hypothesis as being credible, when it really needs to be rejected.

    I keep seeing skeptics rehashing issues like the width of the CO2 absorption lines -- which was the reason why scientists thought that CO2 couldn't cause warming up until the 1950s when the USAF did careful analysis of the upper atmosphere. By the 1960s it was recognized that this objection was no longer an obstacle to CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas -- but in 2009 we still see skeptics making this argument. How can the other side of this debate be expected to treat arguments like this seriously?

  17. I am surprised by all the emphasis on solar and wind power, and so little emphasis on using perhaps the most powerful and reliable source of potential energy here in the PacNW -- tidal power. The tides come and go with predictable regularity, and there is a massive amount of energy in their movement. Why do we hear so little about research in using this inexhaustible source of energy which is much more reliable, particularly here, than wind or sunlight?

  18. Cliff,

    Thanks for the effort. What you suggest would have been good and useful about 35 years ago. Anything we can do usefully now is going to cause pain. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try though. I'm putting in another row of potatoes.

    On another topic, but germane to your site; I have found the probcasts consistently forecast temperatures 5 to 10 degrees too high for our area. We're on Marrowstone Island. The straight NWS feed is more accurate for us. Now, they both get their data for us from the Jeff Co. airport, which has a different microclimate (3 weather changes between our cabin and Port Hadlock...) Given the same (slightly inaccurate) data, NWS' algorithms seem to be more accurate for the 98358 zip code than probcast's algorithms.


  19. Christopher - there is some work being done on tidal power (not sure if you've seen this already):

  20. I think some folks miss the scale of the issue.

    Current US electric generating capacity is 1 million Megawatts.(and we still get brownouts in the summer)

    A state of the art wind turbine produces 2 megawatts if the wind blows at 15 MPH..they are only $2-3 million a piece.

    They also kill birds and bats at a fairly good rate and most of the really good sites are 'scenic'.

    The Apollo program cost $145 Billion(in 2008 dollars). To replace the fossil fuel electricity plants in the US will cost 10 times that.

  21. In all the debate and media coverage on global warming, it's rare to hear the issue of "over population" seriously discussed. I think Gore mentions it on page 230 of first book. It's really not about global warming, its about overpopulation and the complete destruction of everything natural. Global warming is just a by-product.


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