Monday, November 23, 2009

Getting Real about Climate Change

In 2001 the English version of The Skeptical Environmentalist by the Danish statistician, Bjorn Lomborg, was published. It marked the beginning of an increasingly vehement debate about the impact of Human activity upon the levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere and the potential that this has for changing the climate of the Planet. Lomborg himself was skeptical about some of the findings of others, and he was able to highlight some weaknesses in some of the work that had been conducted up until then. In turn, however, the response to The Skeptical Environmentalist, was extremely hostile. Lomborg's scientific skills, indeed his very integrity were bitterly attacked. Yet, in fact much of Lomborg's work underlined the very high likelihood that CO2 emissions were the result of the activity of man, and that they could in turn lead to significant alterations in climate.

The scientific work in studying the climate contains some of the most difficult mathematical questions that humans have faced. The extraordinary complexity of the planetary climate requires huge computing power even to approximately model it- and the most sophisticated climate modelling programs can outstrip even economic modelling in their detail and complexity. It is- in short- a very serious business.

Furthermore, the fundamental question is not whether or not human activity alters the climate- the evidence is utterly overwhelming that it does. The question is how much human activity is changing the incredibly complicated and interlinked systems that allow life to flourish on Earth as- so far as we can tell- no where else. As one of the Apollo Astronauts said "we are living in the Garden of Eden- and we don't take very good care of it".

Scientists owe some of their understanding of the atmospheric greenhouse effect by the pure research done on the atmosphere of Venus. The consequences of a runaway greenhouse effect have been to bake Venus at extraordinary high temperatures and render Earth's near twin uninhabitable to any life form that we can recognise. We do not know what the impact of large scale release of CO2 by mankind is, but we have seen on Venus that the consequences could include impairing or even ending the capacity of the Planet to support mankind, even if the risks of this may be quite small, the fact is that we are playing a game a game of Russian roulette and we do not understand how many bullets are in the chamber nor how many chambers there actually are.

In that sense the large number of "climate change deniers" are kind of missing the point. They may dispute the meaning of data, they may imply that a few scientists have done poor work and that they manipulate results that are biased against the "climate change denier" lobby. However there is no scientific doubt whatsoever that human activity has changed and is changing the climate. They may dispute how much it matters, but they cannot- indeed do not- dispute that it happens. The problem is that if it does matter, it matters a lot. We are injecting great instability into a fiercely complicated system, that we still do not fully understand. It is a matter of simple prudence that we should try to moderate human impact on the atmosphere.

Then there is a second, allied, aspect to the debate about climate change: it is the issue of sustainability. We have created a society that is not just profligate in energy use, but in many other resources. We do not know how much oil and gas or coal exists in the Earth's crust, but we do know that it is finite. We do not know how many metals, from Iron to Platinum to Uranium exist, but we know that these are finite too.

Humans are a very young species- perhaps not older than 100,000 years in our modern form. civilisation, including agriculture is far younger than that: less than 10,000 years. Compared to the roughly 4.5 billion years of the existence of the solar system, and our planet amongst it, or the roughly 500 million years since the explosion of life in the Cambrian era, we are mere mayflies. As a matter of common sense we should be reusing the resources that we have and conducting our economic business in a way that allows us to continue to benefit from the bounty that the earth provides us with. That means using constantly renewed sources of energy, such as solar, and it also means using more living things to serve our purposes. For example, bacteria or plants that can breakdown waste products so that they are no longer toxic, perhaps even breaking down CO2 itself. We do not have to reject technology in order to create sustainable ways of doing things, although in some ways we simply need to relearn old technologies: the creation of modern maritime wind power could reduce the third of CO2 emissions that come from shipping for example.

As we await the deliberations of the Copenhagen summit, we already know what we have to do, we just have to make the decisions to do it. If we do things now, the costs and consequences are likely to be dramatically lower than if we wait. It is time to be quite clear: even if the total risks arising from the dramatic elevation in CO2 may be small (which is debatable), some of the potential consequences are so severe as to be unacceptable. As for sustainability: it is already a certainty that we are using up finite resources. It is only a matter of time before we will be forced to take action- now might be a good time to act while we still have some cushions and margins for error.

We need to get into better habits and avoid the kind of waste that our rather short-sighted, disposable culture is embedding in our social values. This is a process of reform that could take a while. Human beings may take time to see that their short term wishes may not be in the interests of their long term survival.

11 comments:

Tim Worstall said...

"If we do things now, the costs and consequences are likely to be dramatically lower than if we wait."

Ah, no, wrong way round. If we pile in now and try to change everything quickly the costs of mediation will be vastly higher than if we take our time about thins.

As one example, if we scrap generating plants before their obsolescence, this costs us a fortune. If we replace them with new, lower emission, technology only once they are obsolete this costs us a great deal less.

As another: solar PV is no yet a mature technology and as such is hugely expensive. The German system of feed in tariffs and other subsidies costs $1,070 per tonne CO2 not emitted. The cost of a tonne emitted (as per Stern) is $80. So that's a $990 loss on each tonne there. Going gangbusters to install the next (or even next after that) technology of solar PV would be a much ,much , cheaper option.

neil craig said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dan Pangburn said...

Tens of billions of dollars have been wasted in futile efforts to prove that added CO2 caused Global Warming while an unpaid engineer with a home computer has discovered what really caused the temperature run-up in the 20th century.

All of the average global temperatures for the entire 20th century and so far in the 21st century are readily and accurately determined with no consideration whatsoever needed of changes to the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gas.

Data sources, an eye-opening graph that overlays the measured and calculated temperatures from 1880 to 2008 and a detailed description of the method are in the paper dated October 14 at http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=145&linkbox=true .

This research shows that there is no significant Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) (and therefore no human caused climate change) from added atmospheric carbon dioxide or any other added greenhouse gas.

Joe Otten said...

Cicero, you speak as if you have actually read the Skeptical Environmentalist.

That's not really the done thing, apparently, if you are going to comment on it.

Cicero said...

Hi Tim, of course that is not what I mean about moving quickly- we clearly need to set realistic priorities. personally I think that the scrapping of Ignalina early was a big mistake for the Lithuanians. However I would say that the Desertec project does look quite promising, and would advocate a rapid expsnsion in research here.

Dan- actually, and given all the scientific caveats, I would suggestthat the evidence is quite clear that there is a relationship between higher CO2 concentrations and significant climate change. Even if you are not yet convinced, I think that even the potential risks are so significant that it would be petty irresponsible not to take action.
Joe- you cynic you!
Neil- another nasty and irrelevent rant. Since you continually post comments that are unacceptable (and occasionally actionable) in any civilisd debate I am afraid I am going to continue to block your comments unless you substantially change your tone and content.

neil craig said...

It isn't a debate if alternative views are censored. It isn't civilised if things are censored for being true.

LS said...

"We are injecting great instability into a fiercely complicated system, that we still do not fully understand."

What we do understand about it is that, contrary to what you imply, it's not a stable system anyway. The whole term "climate change" ignores the fact that "climate stability" is impossible.

Dan Pangburn said...

Cicero,
It is unclear what caveats you are referring to. I used none.
My research produces an excellent match to measured average global temperatures for the entire 20th century and so far in the 21st with no consideration whatsoever of change to CO2 or any other ghg. That shows quite clearly that change to CO2 level has no significant effect on average global temperature. There is no risk of significant temperature increase. There is risk of planet cooling, crop failure and famine.

Cicero said...

Dan- could you post a link to your work please?

Dan Pangburn said...

The most complete, in spite of the ambiguous title, is the pdf dated October 14 at http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=145&linkbox=true .

Newmania said...

Those in favour of global warming ( and I meant that ) actually do so with a specific political objective. It is the objective of all manufactured emergencies from ‘Krystallnacht’ onwards , a power grab, and suspension of accountability .It is usually conceived as a reason for collectivist of elitist solutions such a socialism of or the EU. There no obvious reason why multi state empires or socialism should be any better at solving this problem than they have been at getting the drains fixed ,but it is a “higher purposes” , and the left love a good reason to shut everyone up.
I am not a denier though , I am pretty convinced something is happening but here is my second problem .
The amount of ice in the world is increasing . Fact . Glaciers which are getting larger have been filmed in Spring and shown as dramatic examples of global warming , also fact . The is called lying .
It is also true that if you turn off the freezer it fills with ice , that’s is why in the ant-artic ice is increasing but in the Artic where it is on the sea , for the most part it is shrinking . Here you have an ice cube in warm water effect. Its like dipping democracy in socialism
So the changes in ice patterns can support a convincing model of global warming but you have to ignore the utter bilge coming from doomsters together with their dying Polar Bears ( vastly increased in number since the 60s )
So no , I am not a denier ,but that does not means signing up for being patronised lied to and lead into world government via treaties or collectivist responses . So when catastrophe enthusiasts talk about obdurate unreasonableness ,they ought to think a little harder about who started lying, why they started, and what they can do to clean their act up.