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Global Warming 08/OCT/01

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I used to enjoy the show Politically Incorrect.   Bill Maher used to act as a moderator, and he seemed genuinely interested in the information his guests wanted to share. For the last year or so he's been using the show as his pulpit to evangelize his viewpoint.  I am continually annoyed when he shouts down anyone who doesn't share his contention that human-caused global warming is a proven fact.

One of the big problems with discussing Global Warming (with capital letters) is the emotion it generates on both sides. When surfing the net on this subject you see the words, "myth," "lies," "disinformation," and "conspiracy." thrown around a lot.  For example, here's a page of links.  Not all are about global warming, but you can see just by the titles that many are extreme.  That attitude can make it really hard to accept the information on any of the sites without a lot of skepticism.

This is such a huge topic that it's hard to know where to begin.

A Dangerous Experiment

I suppose I'll address the cautious view first:  Since we don't know for certain whether or not humans are causing global warming, and since its projected effects are so devastating, it's prudent to not take chances and we should cut our CO2 output.  Right?

Well, I would be all for that if the costs were very low.  There are some technology and conservation changes we could make that are relatively easy.  Some may even make economic sense on their own. I'm all for that. But draconian measures like the Kyoto Protocols are very likely to be very expensive. They are more likely to cause a deep recession than they are to actually improve the climate. I'm not willing to face the millions of people who will be forced out of work and tell them, "Sorry we had to sacrifice your job. But there's this small chance that if we had kept going the way we were then it might have caused climactic changes that could be really dangerous. We can't be very sure that what we're doing will help, but I'm sure you'll understand."

The Kyoto Protocols

The big problem with the Kyoto Protocols is that they likely wouldn't do any good.   Most people assume that implementing them will cut CO2 levels worldwide.   That's nowhere near the case.  The richest countries are required to lower their CO2 output to 1990 levels by 2010, and 10% below that by 2020.  But even at those levels the CO2 in the atmosphere will continue to increase.  In fact, cutting emissions by 70% won't stabilize CO2 levels.  And what would that do to the economy?

On top of all that, the developing nations aren't required to cut their emissions at all.  The standard argument is that since the U.S. uses so much more energy per capita that it's not fair to hold the third world to their current energy budget.  I understand where they're coming from.  But the problem is that the actual global CO2 output will increase substantially because of that.  So once again, the Kyoto Protocols won't have any real effect on what is ostensibly their main target.

Why should we ruin our economy on a band-aid fix that won't do any good?

Jumping to Conclusions

Another of the things Bill Maher does that annoys me is he talks about his aunt in Ottumwa, IA (or whoever it is.)  This relative tells Bill that she thinks it's hotter than it should be, and to Bill that's proof positive that anthropogenic CO2 output is causing global warming.  He takes one poorly-documented, anecdotal, layman's account from one spot on the planet and extrapolates that to represent the climate of the entire world.  He does this often enough to indicate to me that he think's it's a reasonable thing to do.  That indicates to me that he has a very poor understanding of the issues.  He's basing his views on sound-bite science.  The average predicted changes are very small.   There's no way that one person can subjectively recognize these changes.  And, what happens at one spot on the planet doesn't mean the same thing is happening everywhere.  So Bill's relative's opinion is essentially worthless.  I don't care what she says.  It's not useful information.

Global climatology is a very new field of science, and one which is mind-bogglingly complex.  It strikes me as incredibly arrogant as well as rather unethical for anyone to contend that they have any real idea what the climate is going to be like decades from now.  As this article says it, “To single out one variable, namely radiation through the atmosphere and the associated ‘greenhouse effect,’ as being the primary driving force of atmospheric and oceanic climate, is a simplistic and absurd way to view the complex interaction of forces between the land, ocean, atmosphere, and outer space.”

There appears to be something in the human psyche that leads to a self-loathing for our own species.  If they hear someone say that a particular patch of swamp is undergoing upheaval due to man, we assume it's true. It takes a lot of evidence to convince most people otherwise. If we hear that some particular large project is going to destroy everything downstream of it, we again assume it's true. Even though in today's industrialized nations the risk of large disruptions have been addressed and reduced as much as possible. There have even been numerous documented cases where changes caused by something man has done ended up helping more than it hurt. Albeit, almost always by accident.

Couple together this self-loathing with the sky is falling sound-bite science and everyone just assumes that we're doomed.

Could it be Something Else?

One thing I should throw out here is that I agree that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere today can be documented to be much higher than ever before.  And also, there does appear to be a slight increase in both the ocean and air temperature over the last 50 years.  I concede those two facts.  But anthropogenic CO2 output is not the only possible explanation for the increase in temperature.  Correlation is not causation.

The most likely alternative explanation is variable output by the sun. The sun is a natural object where the conditions that lead to fusion are not strictly constant.   By looking at the sun's reflection off of other planets, scientists have documented an increase in the amount of light being reflected from them.  Either the planets are more reflective than they used to be.  Or, there's more light falling on them to begin with.  The latter explanation is the more likely.

Not only does that explain temperature changes directly.  But it also explains why the current computer models do such a poor job of matching past temperature changes.   All of the models assume that the energy input from the sun is constant, and that the only change is the retention by the Earth's biosphere.  It seems clear that those models can't be expected to accurately predict future changes.

Also, there's a viable argument that even if we were good little humans and we were somehow magically able to cut our CO2 output to zero the increased output from the sun would make the temperatures go up, anyway.  Again, it strikes me as irresponsible to ruin the economy when there's good chance it won't do any good.

The Data

Our historical data is spotty at best.  Until recently, our recording stations had huge gaps between them.  I doubt the instruments themselves were standardized.  And it would surprise me to learn that the instruments were able to maintain their calibration over a long period of time.  Even with modern instruments there are questions about whether or not the data is normalized to account for the "heat island effect."  And whether or not the installations are maintained well enough to produce good data.   (Plants growing around the stations will block vents and cause the station to trap heat and report an artificially high temperature.)

One thing that people don't seem to recognize is that climate trends last over a very long period of time.  So the "temperature increase" that we're seeing right now can also be characterized as simply the rebound from a cooling cycle that started 600 years ago.  If you go back 14,000 years, then we're much warmer than during the last real Ice Age.  But if you go back farther than that, the climate has been much warmer than today over most of the history of the planet, and we're still in the middle of a cooling cycle.  In fact, it turns out that it's fairly unusual for our planet to have ice caps.

Humans are incredibly arrogant, and they keep thinking that the climate they grew up in is the "correct" one.  Actually, there's nothing magic about climate over the last couple of hundred years.  The climate has been changing since the planet formed, and it's very unlikely that we can arrest all changes and maintain the climate that we have today.  It's going to change, and there's good evidence that our CO2 output is not affecting the rate of that change significantly.

Computer Models

Another thing that drives me nuts is that many of the people who say evolution is "...just a theory," are the same people who place blind faith in the computer models which are used to predict global warming.

I've never worked on a climatology model, but I have helped with flight sims.  I'm familiar with how processes in the real world are simplified in order for the simulation to run in a reasonable amount of time. Current climatology models take days per decade of simulation time. The scientists would like to run the simulations with greater detail but the run times grow exponentially.

Also, the ground-based temperature measurements don't agree with the satellite-based measurements.   Basically, while the ground-based measurements do show a small increase (much smaller than projected) the satellite-based measurements show virtually no change.   And that pretty much invalidates the models.  What are considered the strongest models lead us to expect greater increases in temperature at the mid-altitudes measured by the satellites than should be occurring at ground level.

According to a Scientific American article I read (sorry, can't find a link to it) the current sims divide the world into 200 kilometer segments and 10,000 feet vertically. At that scale, important energy transfer events like thunderstorms are far too small to be modelled accurately.   They're greatly simplified, and therefore their effects are glossed over.  The author of that article predicted that it would be 20 years before the granularity of the models could be shrunken enough to really accurately model the climate.

Also, the models only recently began to include detailed modeling of very important structures like cloud cover. 

For example, according to a recent article, the details of the cloud cover over the Pacific ocean act as a natural temperature regulator.  The short version goes something like this.  High, wispy cirrus clouds tends to let light in, which heats the ocean.  As the temperature goes up, more water evaporates.  Water vapor is the number one gas which traps heat.   As the water concentraion goes up, more heavy cumulus clouds form. These heavy clouds reflect more light before it gets to the ground, thus dropping the temperature.

Another example shows the models haven't been modeling the effect of friction from the tides.  They cause much more water cirulation than previously expected.

These are new findings, and have not been incorporated into any of the computer models as of 2000. The vast majority of the heat budget of the planet is tied up in the oceans (air temperature is mostly a side-effect) and so what happens there is fundamental to understanding and predicting climate changes. If the models don't correctly handle the effects on and of the oceans, then the only way they'll predict the future is essentially by random chance.

Even five years ago the computer models were far less sophisticated than they are today.  And the ones today are woefully inadaquate.  Many people formed their rock-solid, can't-be-altered beliefs on global warming based upon what amount to weather models that have been extrapolated to absurdity.

Since the real world isn't matching the models, it doesn't make much sense to refer to the models to make predictions on what the real world will be like in the future.

The Reporting

One of the worst aspects of this issue has been the shallow reporting.  People have heard phrases like, "Nearly every scientist now accepts that Global Warming is true." that they no longer question it.  This is another example of sound-bite news.  Pretty much everytime you see a phrase like that, no matter which news agency you're currently looking at, it's really an Associated Press, United Press International, or Reuters report.  And they all got their info from the IPCC.

It turns out, while many scientists may in fact agree with that statement, the ones who matter don't.  Most scientists don't know much more about climatology than the average citizen.  The real climatologists, the experts who devote their professional career studying this field of science, readily admit that we don't know, yet.

So why do we keep hearing that the evidence is conclusive?  Because the IPCC wants us to hear that.

The news reports are not based on the actual scientific report.  The news reports are based on the Technical Summary and the Policy Summary.  The IPCC has a history of changing the language of the summaries to imply a much stronger consensus than actually exists.  Generally along the lines of taking, "There's some shaky evidence that this might be happening" and changing it to "It is clear that this is happening."  Here's a page which shows a side-by-side comparison of how they've altered the language.  And here's a page detailing some of the other misstatements by the IPCC.

Okay, So What Should We Do?

First, we should admit that We Don't Know, Yet.  That's really hard for most people to do.  But it's very important.  It brings to the forefront that we need to keep looking.  We can't assume we know enough and stop learning.

Next, there are a lot of things we can do that are both economically viable and at the same time cut down on increases in CO2 production (albeit, not necessarily cut them back for awhile.)

For example, a reasonably-regulated nuclear power industry should be in line with the costs of energy production of fossil fuels.  What makes it prohibitively expensive today is the onerous regulations.  And it would very likely be safe, including the waste.

Obviously, any increases in energy efficiency should cut down on energy needs, and therefore CO2 production.  But one needs to be careful that you're not just spending a lot of money to move the production of energy without any real gains.   For example, electric cars are not zero-polluters.  That energy has to come from somewhere.  And right now that means fossil fuels.  And the poor efficiencies of getting the power to the vehicles actually probably costs more energy than it's saving.  One main advantage is that it move the pollution away from the congested roadways during rush hour.

One should also take into account historical trends.  So far in the world, strong environmental support is very closely tied to a strong economy.  If the economy is floundering then the members of that society simply can't afford to spend much of their wealth on environmental issues.

Similarly, throughout history, a warmer climate has led to much greater prosperity for people who have borderline economies.  It might be that we want this projected temperature increase.  OTOH, the other climate changes that come along with it might cause suffering for a large portion of the population.  So we're right back to trying to figure out what's going to happen.

Bottom line: We don't know, yet.

Our CO2 output is probably causing some effect. But will the net results be good or bad? We don't know, yet.

Should we be cutting CO2 output, or is there a better way to spend our time and money? We don't know, yet.

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