Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Climate change thoughts

Like so many issues today climate change has been politicized.   A movement more akin to a religion blames every calamity on climate change and questioning of their conclusions is treated as heresy. Those in opposition reject any evidence of warming with cynicism rather than healthy skepticism.  It is hard for a citizen to form a solid opinion on such an important topic.

A serious effort to better understand the issue through a review of related literature makes it clear that the science is not as open and shut as some believe.   That does not mean there is not climate change, or that we should not act to address it, but there are too many failed predictions and unanswered questions to conclude the “science is settled.”  For example, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of 1990 predicted temperature and sea level rise that has not come to fruition.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports in the “The Sun and Climate” report that the Earth has warmed .99° F since 1860, and about half of this could be due to increased solar radiation.  However, .648° F of the .99 F° increase occurred from 1970 – 2000.  Solar radiation change can only account for .198° F of the .648° F increase; “the rest could be due to greenhouse warming or some other cause.”

The scientific community consensus is that most of the warming of the Earth in the last half century is from the retention of heat energy due to the trapping or greenhouse effect caused by the retention of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.   Healthy skepticism is warranted with regard to such pronouncements and prognostication.  But at the same time one cannot stick one’s head in the sand and ignore what could be a very serious challenge.

The Earth warms and cools as solar radiation reaching the Earth rises and falls.  Scientific understanding of solar radiation and the cycles and patterns of its intensity is extensive but not absolute.  The amount of solar energy that is retained or reflected by the Earth contributes to the warming and cooling process.  Scientific understanding of the process of retention of solar energy by the Earth is even less clear.

What is clear is that the Earth’s climate is in constant change over the long term.  It warms and cools in natural cycles over long periods. One need only look at the vestiges of glaciers that are Long Island, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Island to affirm that fact.  Only a short 20,000 years ago ice as high as 2.5 miles covered most of the northern latitudes.  The average temperature then was six degrees centigrade cooler and sea level was substantially lower as water was retained by the ice sheets.

The atmosphere acts as a shelter that regulates the Earth’s average temperature to about 59 degrees Farenheit.  The atmosphere includes the constituent part carbon dioxide.   Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise and fall with long term global temperature change.  Human activity since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s is the major contributor to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from about 300ppm to the present 400ppm and has caused the carbon dioxide cycle to lead rather than trail temperature change.

The effect of human induced carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere is not adequately understood to make grand predictions of its impact.   The Economist reported in March, 2013, “Over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar. The world added roughly 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO₂ put there by humanity since 1750.”  If there is a cause and effect between rising carbon dioxide and rising temperatures why have temperatures not risen in 15 years?  Scientists cannot yet explain this anomaly.

After reading many scientific and policy papers on climate change one can reasonably conclude the science is not settled.  An objective reading of related material reveals there are many unanswered questions, past predictions have been wrong, and modeling may be flawed.

But the fact is that atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing as the result of human activity.  The effect of this increase is not fully known, but the negative effects of using the finite fossil fuel resource as the primary energy source of the world are many.  Human beings should make serious efforts to eliminate fossil fuels from use over the next century.  Carbon output reduction will be achieved as a consequence of that shift.

The world will not make the kinds of changes needed to lower carbon output adequately over the next century without a major incentive to do so.  Too many countries want to develop and they will use the cheapest energy they can find to accomplish desired levels of growth regardless of carbon output.

The U.S. can and should pursue planning that will allow adjustment to moderate rise in temperature and sea level over the next century, but its major emphasis should be in disruptive technologies.

The U.S. should make minor investments to shift its energy base to conventional renewables (wind and solar) and conservation, but its major investment should be in disruptive technologies such as fusion nuclear power, waste annihilating molten salt nuclear reactors, ultracapacitors, fuel cells, distributed power systems, alternative fuel vehicles, etc.  Through disruptive technology there is the opportunity to create whole new industries while solving the carbon problem and making the economic case so compelling that the entire world would convert to non-carbon based energies over the next century.


  1. The global warming debate is really about the following questions:

    1). Is increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere disrupting the natural cycle of warming and cooling? According to the Department of Energy atmospheric carbon dioxide is currently at 401.14 ppm. Levels in the ice ages were about 200ppm and prior to the Industrial Revolution were about 280ppm. Detailed scientific records first began in the 1950s and recorded 313ppm. Record level carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a fact.

    It is a fact that carbon dioxide as a constituent component of our protective atmosphere that plays a role in regulating Earth’s temperature.

    The degree to which increased carbon dioxide plays a role in regulating Earth’s temperature is not fully understood. The “pause” in rising global temperatures since 2000 was not predicted and is not reasonably explained by scientists and models. If there were a direct correlation between rising carbon dioxide and temperature this stall would not be possible.

    2) Is human activity a major contributor to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere? The data on carbon output by human activity since the Industrial Revolution clearly indicates that human activity is the proximate cause of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Arguments that volcano and forest fire activity are greater are false. The trend line of carbon release by human burning of fossil fuels and other activity is upward as the world develops.

    3) Can anything be done effectively to slow the warming trend line? Human beings can do nothing to stop the solar cycle that contributes to global climate changes. The Earth’s oval orbit around the sun, its changing axis tilt, and its wobble, as well as solar activity cycles, play a major role in the climate of Earth and are beyond any human control.

    Human beings may be able to reduce the rate and intensity of global temperature rise by controlling how much solar energy is retained by the Earth. Human activity has contributed to the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide is a component part of the atmosphere that regulates Earth’s temperature, but there is inadequate knowledge of the impact of increased carbon dioxide on warming.

    There is a correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures throughout history. Though not fully understood, human created carbon dioxide levels can be reduced and as a result could lower greenhouse effect warming, but it is not a fact.

    4) Is the cost of anything that can be done acceptable? The Obama Administration is developing federal policy and regulations, and expending tens of billions of tax dollars to combat global warming. Carbon output by the United States has decreased to 1990 levels to approximately 5 billion metric tons equivalent, but is increasing among developing nations such as China and India. Despite U.S. stabilization of carbon output at 1990 levels, worldwide carbon output is 150% higher than it was in 1990 and climbing.

    If human emission of carbon dioxide were to cease today the temperature would still rise according to some reports. Many suggest we attempt to stabilize the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide slightly higher than it is today at 450-500ppm by reducing human carbon output by 50% by 2050. That will not occur if the entire world is not on board.

    There is significant cost to implementing what would be a major shift in fossil fuel use over the next 50 years. There are major economic studies in this regard that argue on the one hand that the cost of implementing carbon reducing changes may be more costly than the damage that would result if we do nothing. On the other hand are those who say the damage will be far greater than the cost of implementing change.

  2. By all means, lets keep studying the obvious until such time as we can all agree that we have altered the climate!

    1. Law, public policy, and the allocation of finite financial resources should not be based on public perception of the "obvious" at a given point in time. The obvious for many people is television media that ascribes every catastrophe to climate change. For example, I was recently reading an article that gave hurricane Sandy as an example of massive storms caused by climate change. Hurricane Sandy was in fact a category 1 hurricane. The perception of its intensity as immense is incorrect. It is high value and dense real estate construction along the coast that resulted in significant damage from this relatively minor storm. Making decisions with inadequate information may result in unintended consequences more deleterious than the solution that is sought.

  3. The NYT reported on 8/27/2014 that President Obama intends to pursue binding international agreements to reduce carbon emissions without a treaty that would require U.S. Senate confirmation. There are many issues associated with such action described in the article. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/us/politics/obama-pursuing-climate-accord-in-lieu-of-treaty.html?_r=0

  4. An editorial by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal regarding the upcoming UN summit on Global Warming that China, India, and others will not attend is worth reading. http://online.wsj.com/articles/matt-ridley-whatever-happened-to-global-warming-1409872855


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