The bemused person’s guide to global warming

The global warming debate has morphed into Mondo Bizzaro.  Rudd is capable of mounting a succinct and persuasive explanation of his emissions trading scheme but chooses not to do so,  preferring to shift the electoral focus to subjects the pollsters tell him are more unequivocally propitious.

Tony Abbott, who thinks man-made global warming is “crap”, nevertheless promises to spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars in dealing with it, even though his predecessor rightly labels the Mad Monk’s policy as  “a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale” that would increase taxes and fail to reduce emissions.  Of course, the cognoscenti know that Abbott’s policy is just a minimally plausible figleaf he has no intention of ever implementing, but which allows him the elbow room to orchestrate a rerun of Labor’s 1998 GST scare campaign by labelling the ETS a “great big new tax”.

Only Turnbull bothers to present a considered, analytical case for the ETS, but no-one listens because he’s yesterday’s man and neither policy nor principle nor even intelligent discussion are of the slightest interest to the reptiles of Australia’s political media.  Politics is just a footy game for nerds.

It currently seems highly unlikely that an ETS or any other effective policy to combat man-made global warming will be implemented in the near to medium term, either in Australia or elsewhere, something Paul Frijters has presciently been saying here at Troppo for a rather long time.  No wonder they voted him Australia’s best young economist.  Maybe the time really has come to start seriously canvassing geo-engineering solutions to global warming, as Paul has previously canvassed here and here.  I’ll come back to that point in a moment.

But first I want to highlight what seems to me to be a rather strange development in recent climate change records.  First, a brief explanation.  Until a few years ago I would have counted myself as a moderate climate change sceptic, or more accurately an agnostic.  What convinced me that carbon-driven man-made warming was not only a reality but a serious problem was an argument between the Godfather of econoblogging John Quiggin and (now deceased)  prominent Australian sceptic John Daly. 

Quiggin pointed out that the world was moving into a period of reduced solar activity (the Solar Minimum of the 11 year sunspot cycle) and argued that, depending on what happened with the ENSO (El Nino/La Nina) cycle then we should experience a significant decrease in global average temperature through the first decade of the twenty first century.  Leaving aside the occasional effects of very large volcanic eruptions (of which there haven’t been any over the last decade), the major drivers of climate change are solar activity,  ENSO and changes in atmospheric composition.  If solar activity is reduced and we don’t have any El Nino events then, if human-generated atmospheric carbon emissions are not a significant cause of global warming (as sceptics like Daly argue), we should see a significant fall in global temperature back towards the long term average.

That was precisely the situation through the last 5-7 years.  The low point of the 11 year sunspot cycle called the Solar Minimum (plotting which seems to be a rather inexact science) was probably reached in early 2008 although some argue it was really in 2009, and we were also in a La Nina or neutral ENSO pattern through the preceding few years.  And yet global average temperatures did not fall back significantly towards the long term mean (1960-1990) as you would expect.  All we saw was a plateau effect where global temperatures have stopped rising over the last decade.  Dedicated warming sceptics have gleefully presented this decade-long lack of global temperature increase as proof that the man-made warming hypothesis is nonsense, but as far as I can see the fact that there hasn’t been any significant fall in average temperature strongly suggests exactly the opposite (as John Quiggin argued).

However, the record over the last 18 months-2 years rather suggests that something more might be happening.  Since 2008 we’ve probably been heading back towards the next Solar Maximum, and we’re currently just emerging from an El Nino pattern (albeit a very weak one), and yet no clear resumption of a warming trend has yet become evident (see the Goddard Institute for Space Studies graph below).  Why?  Perhaps the strength/depth and timing of the Solar Minimum has been enough to mask the effect of a weak El Nino.  But perhaps there’s something else happening too. 

Could there be a negative feedback mechanism that mainstream scientists have overlooked or underestimated?  One possibility may be that the proportion of cloud types that reflect solar radiation back to space increases as more CO2 and water vapour are pumped into the atmosphere. Warming sceptics have long suggested some such thing.  There have been previous periods in earth’s history when atmospheric carbon levels have been significantly higher than now, and yet the atmosphere didn’t turn into hot pea-soup.  It rather suggests the possibility of some natural self-correcting negative feedback mechanism (although not necessarily one that is proof against unlimited human interference).  I confess I haven’t kept up to date with climate change research (and as a non-expert I don’t fully understand much of it even when I attempt to do so), but I know that changes in cloud cover was one area that was poorly understood and under active research only a few years ago.  I’m rather hoping a Troppo reader can fill in the gaps.

Another possibility is that human-generated emissions of non-carbon atmospheric pollutants might be counteracting the CO2 we’re emitting.  Many readers probably don’t realise that global average temperatures actually fell slightly between about 1945 and 1978 (again see the GISS graph).  Mainstream climate scientists explain this conundrum as being caused by human emissions of  “sulfate aerosol” industrial pollutants, which persist in the upper atmosphere, reflect solar radiation back to space and therefore have a cooling effect on global climate (as opposed to CO2 which has a warming or insulating effect).  The sulfate aerosol pollution effectively negated the temperature effects of CO2 pollution in the post WWII period, so the story goes, until governments in the first world began cracking down seriously on smog-creating industries from the mid-60s.  Smog cleared around first world cities and, hey presto, the pernicious heating effects of invisible CO2 pollution were no longer being masked by the dirty but cooling sulfate smog. 

It’s a plausible if not necessarily compelling explanation for the fact that the twentieth century temperature record certainly doesn’t provide a clear unbroken picture of major warming despite large and steady increases in human-generated atmospheric CO2 over that period.  But what about the current global situation?  The explosive industrial growth of the world’s two largest nations China and India over the last 15-20 years has certainly not been accompanied by effective regulation of industrial pollution.  Smog over China’s large cities is choking and getting steadily worse.  Is it possible that  the plateau in global warming we’re currently experiencing is in part caused by exactly the same man-made factors that caused the global climate to cool slightly between 1945 and 1978?

Moreover, does this phenomenon suggest a practical geo-engineering solution to global warming if, as seems likely, the international community continues to prove incapable of reaching a workable agreement to cap and reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to avoid disaster?  Tim Flannery suggested in 2008 that perhaps it was time to consider pumping large amounts of sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere as a deliberate strategy to counter global warming.  It seems a drastic solution given that sulfate pollution is likely to have some rather nasty environmental side-effects, quite apart from the aesthetic one of turning the sky yellow.  However, might it be possible to nano-engineer less environmentally damaging  types of tiny aerosol particles light enough to persist in the stratosphere and reflect radiation back to space?  I have no idea, but I’d be very interested in feedback from readers more knowledgeable than me on the subject.  Maybe the Mad Monk should add this idea to his climate change policy; at the very least it’s no sillier than some of the stuff already in there.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
11 years ago

“There have been previous periods in earths history when atmospheric carbon levels have been significantly higher than now, and yet the atmosphere didnt turn into hot pea-soup.”

I thught that CO2 levels are at historical highs see here: And according to a graph based on ice-cores that I displayed on my blog, the levels have not been above 300 fo half a million years. It is currently at 387.

James Farrell
11 years ago

There was a BBC program about global dimming a few years ago. There’s a summary and discussion on RealClimate here. As I recall, the process had the ability to wreak havoc with global rainfalls, including messing up the monsoon. I have no idea about ‘nano-engineering’. Sequestration sounds less risky to me.

JC
JC
11 years ago

But why even try to figure non-linearity is such short time scales. It’s impossible unless it’s on a look back.

Geo-engineering would, I think, be almost impossible to put together unless it really was a disaster scenario as I can’t imagine everyone agreeing to it as you couldn’t dump stuff into the atmosphere without a general agreement.

Look, I think AGW is a potentially very large problem long-term. However in my mind it is also a sign of success in that the big countries are finally doing something about giving their people a decent standard of living. This should be applauded.

The only way we combat AGW is to derive abundant energy from cheaper sources than coal, which can be done.

The problem is that we’re running around like headless chooks figuring out how to make energy more expensive when the real game (the one we lost sight of) is to find a source that’s cheaper than coal.

It is achievable. Fast breeder reactors are the only game in town. Economic scaling and reasonable regulation that doesn’t choke this technology to death would see the price of nuke fired plant materially fall over the next few decades.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Hi Ken,

yes, the dimming hypothesis is a fascinating one. I quite like the wikipedia entry on this one (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_dimming) which includes a whole discussion of the use of dimming for geo-engineering.

Sequestration needs an aweful lot of big bunkers (the best sequestration sofar known is called a coal field. We are de-sequestrating very rapidly). Nuclear takes a long time to set up.

JC
JC
11 years ago

Paul

France did most of it in 15 years. The initial stages are the hardest as most of the tech is bespoke at the moment and doesn’t take into account potential scaling.

Following on from that, how long do you think it would take to get renewables up and running in a very hypothetical situation that you could use solar and wind turbines? Every unit has to be installed and there would be thousands dotting the landscape.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
11 years ago

If we’re thinking about emergency options to speed up decarbonisation, how about a carbon tax set at a low rate to fund a prize for the most commercially viable zero carbon source of energy like the X prize?

Ken Miles
Ken Miles
11 years ago

Ken, nice post.

Some points:

* I wouldn’t pay much attention to short term changes in the temperature as there is lots of noise in the data. You risk spending your time looking for patterns in static.

* The question of what causes this noise is (in my mind) far more interesting.

* Here is a link to a blog post which looks at adjusting the temperature for volcanic and El Nino/La Nina. Once these are done, the rate of temperature change is much more linear.

JC
JC
11 years ago

From my understanding 3rd generation reactors are fast breeders. The Emirates are installing/contracted out to the South Koreans using Westinghouse Technology.

The Indian dude isn’t discussing what is and what isn’t commercially viable right now and what will be in the near future.

We’re not exactly talking about nuclear energy as a new source, as it’s been around since the 60’s and if we hadn’t applied an anti-science attitude to it we’d be much further down technology pipeline by now instead of where we are.

Those two reactors in the Emirates are essentially tailored, making them more costly than where it will be once economies come into play.

Those that think that renewable can provide for our needs are dreaming. It won’t and once the public catches on that it was a subsidized con it could further imperil action to reduce emissions.

The mis-information about nuclear is extra-ordinary. It was only recently that Garret told people there were 20,000 deaths are a result of the Chernobyl accident. He’s either lying or extremely ill-informed for a person in his position.

Nuclear is the safest and cleanest energy mode we know of. However it gets a anti-science bad rap. It’s regulated to the crapper while dilute sources like solar and wind are subsided to heaven. We have our priorities all screwed up……..Subsidize dilute forms of energy and try to kill off the one that shows the most promise. Meanwhile we want something done about emissions.

JC
JC
11 years ago

I’m not sure if the Indian scientist is being a little too pessimistic, no?

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

As of 2006, all large-scale FBR power stations have been liquid metal fast reactors (LMFBR) cooled by liquid sodium. These have been of one of two designs:

* Loop type, in which the primary coolant is circulated through primary heat exchangers external to the reactor tank (but within the biological shield owing to the presence of radioactive sodium-24 in the primary coolant).

* Pool type, in which the primary heat exchangers and circulators are immersed in the reactor tank.

Ken Miles.

Please. Short term temp isn’t linear and anyone suggesting they can find linearity in essentially a chaotic system is a joke. I hope this isn’t leading us to the science is settled again particularly around the Himalayan mountains.

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Ken Miles
Ken Miles
11 years ago

JC, reread what I wrote and try again.

JC
JC
11 years ago

Here is a link to a blog post which looks at adjusting the temperature for volcanic and El Nino/La Nina. Once these are done, the rate of temperature change is much more linear.

Like this, right Ken? No one has any idea about short term fluctuations and anyone suggesting the can adjust for this or that is not performing science but ‘voodoo science”, to use the term in the appropriate way it ought to be used.

I’ll repeat, no one can make any short-term assertions for non-linear chaotic systems. If they say they can ask them if they’re the richest people in the world.

Ken Miles
Ken Miles
11 years ago

We do have a good idea about some causes of short term temp changes. Volcanos and El Nina are great examples of these sorts short term changes which can be quantified. And since they can be quantified, they can be used to construct an adjusted temperature record. The post that I linked is an attempt at doing this. And, unsurprising, when this is done, the temperature record looks a lot more linear.

And here is a peer reviewed paper on the topic (pdf)

JC
JC
11 years ago

Ken:

It’s a very rough estimate and at very best just a guess. There are so many other things happening that it makes it impossible to know if you’ve guessed right or not. “We” may think “we” have a good idea is just hubris.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
11 years ago

I should acknowledge that it was really the late John Daly who pointed out the approaching coincidence of a solar minumum and La Nina, and predicted that global cooling would result. Perhaps, observing the actual outcome, he might have changed his mind.

But if so, he would be one of only a handful of “sceptics” capable of being convinced by the evidence (Ken being another, though as he says, his original position was better described as agnosticism since “sceptic” in this context means “dogmatic and credulous disbeliever”.)

The really striking case here is that of the satellite data. Back in the 1990s, it appeared to show cooling. Then, with correction of some statistical errors and more data, it showed warming, but without a statistically significant trend. Then with yet more data, a warming trend, but notably less than at the surface. Now, there is no significant difference.

Any genuine sceptic who had placed substantial weight on the satellite data ought to have been convinced that the evidence was against them. But nothing of the sort has happened. Roy Spencer, who (with Christy) is the satellite guy most closely associated with the “sceptical” interpretation has jumped over to the “no recent warming” camp, dumping most of his data, and cherrypicking starting and ending points to support this.

Jim Belshaw
11 years ago

Very interesting post, Ken. I won’t comment on the detail because of my own lack of knowledge, but I found it quite educational.

Tel
Tel
11 years ago

The biggest problem with the science is that we now have reasonable evidence that at least part of the measurement has been fiddled and we are left with a substantial uncertainty as to what we are really seeing.

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/08/the-smoking-gun-at-darwin-zero/

If you check figure 7 you can see there is plausible justification for one step adjustment around 1941, but looking at figure 8 you see that the climate scientists actually inserted four step adjustments, all in favour of extra warming, and to date no one can explain the justification for these.

It’s not an isolated example either, we have seen various basic reference and research errors in the latest IPCC report (glaciers melting in a few decades which is completely implausible and should have been removed at a glance). This shows that the standard of review and cross-checking on this report has been generally poor.

Then there’s the infamous emails with corrupt peer review process and people deliberately chopping a few data points out of graphs here and there to improve the political impact of their statements. Or course, if you follow the money, there have been clear advantages to alarmists when it comes to extra grants or money flowing into corporate entities such as Tata Energy Research Institute.

Put all this together and we don’t know how much we don’t know anymore. I see this as a really big problem for climate science and for science in general once it gets politicised. This leaves no ability to make good quality decisions, without good quality input data. In short, they blew it.

Could there be a negative feedback mechanism that mainstream scientists have overlooked or underestimated?

Radiation is a fourth power law, so every degree of warming requires a bigger increase in available power than the previous degree of warming. Carbon Dioxide’s infra red absorption band buts up against water on one side and additional CO2 from where we are now also results in a diminishing return in a non-linear manner (approx log function).

Then there’s the rather substantial energy transfer caused by latent heat of evaporation at ground level and condensation up around the tropopause. This is also nonlinear thanks to the properties of water. By the way, since this convection cycle also converts heat to mechanical energy we would expect a strong linkage between warming and storms such as tropical cyclones. NOAA shows a gradual increase in “Named Cyclones by Year” for the past 100 years or so, the Australian BOM shows slight decrease in top-end cyclones over the past 40 years and Wikipedia’s graph of “ACE” shows the low-point around 1970 with a gradual increase after that while other people have managed to graph the same “ACE” data to get a different shape curve (weird huh).

http://www.coaps.fsu.edu/~maue/tropical/global_year_ace.jpg

I’d say there’s a lot of cleaning and revision required before we are anywhere close to being able to make reasoned judgements about how our activity effects global climate.

Add to that, the natural world is an adaptive system so even once we know what is happening now, we still won’t know what the adaptation will do in the future.

Sequestration needs an aweful lot of big bunkers (the best sequestration sofar known is called a coal field. We are de-sequestrating very rapidly).

I believe that limestone is a bigger repository of carbon than coal although no one knows exactly how much of either substance is down there.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
11 years ago

Thanks for the reminders of history JQ.

And thanks to Ken Miles for the link. The graph in the linked article largely answers my query about the very recent temperature record. It provides much larger resolution than the one in my primary post, and therefore shows a fairly sharp rise in temperature in the second part of 2009. That’s exactly what you would expect to see with a weak El Nino on top of continued CO2-driven warming.

Thus on closer examination there appears not to be any anomaly requiring consideration of some other factor. That is especially so if, as the Wikipedia article I linked about the Solar Minimum asserts, solar activity remains at record lows:

During 2008-2009 NASA scientists noted that the Sun is undergoing a “deep solar minimum,” stating: “There were no sunspots observed on 266 of [2008’s] 366 days (73%). To find a year with more blank suns, you have to go all the way back to 1913, which had 311 spotless days: plot. Prompted by these numbers, some observers suggested that the solar cycle had hit bottom in 2008. Maybe not. Sunspot counts for 2009 have dropped even lower. As of September 14th, there were no sunspots on 206 of the year’s 257 days (80%). It adds up to one inescapable conclusion: “We’re experiencing a very deep solar minimum,” says solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center. “This is the quietest sun we’ve seen in almost a century,” agrees sunspot expert David Hathaway of the National Space Science and Technology Center NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center.

For global temperature to be again rising fairly strongly despite such low levels of solar activity appears unequivocally to demonstrate the very strong imprint of the warming influence of man-made carbon emissions.

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dartboard
dartboard
11 years ago

I’ll believe in AGW when Bob Brown says its OK for Australia to have an energy producing nuclear reactor.

Till then, an ETS is just another tax.

Blair
Blair
11 years ago

The El Nino effect on global temperatures typically kicks in in the year when the El Nino finishes (not when it starts), so its warming influence would be expected to occur mostly in 2010, not 2009 (i.e. we wouldn’t expect to have seen it in a big way yet).

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
11 years ago

I’m copying a comment from LesM of Balmain posted on a SMH article by David Marr this morning. It’s just about the best summary I’ve seen of the patent silliness of the denialist/’sceptic’ (in the sense John Quiggin defines in comment 17 above) position on climate change, and certainly applies to some of the contributions to this thread:

The climate change denialism of people like JonJ, assuming they are not the paid shills of the Oil Industry, reminds me of the extraordinary human capacity to willingly suspend disbelief. To accept this denialism, you really need to be willing to believe either/and/or:

1 That the world scientific community are in a criminal conspiracy against the public of the world, by “fixing” the science,
2 That most world governments are a part of this conspiracy against their publics,
3 That they are all doing this to either get more grant money, or to achieve a world government,
4 That pouring nearly 50 billion tonnes a year of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, that would not have been put into the atmosphere without the presence of humans, will have no effect on global climate,
5 That all the known science of the last two hundred years by which the relationships between CO2 and the warming effect has been explained has been fraudulent,
6 That the observed changes that are occurring in our world, at a faster rate than ever before, are perfectly natural and there is nothing we can do about it,
7 That regardless of the science it is not to be believed because my understanding of the science transcends that of all the trained scientists in the world, despite the fact that I have no observable scientific credentials nor any real understanding of the processes that are at work.

Jared Diamond talks about this human capacity to ignore reality until it is too late in his descriptions of the disappearance of civilisations over the millennia. It appears to still be alive and well despite us believing that we have all reached a state of knowledge and wisdom never achieved before in history!

Peter T
Peter T
11 years ago

I was going to comment, but Ken Parish beat me to it. The very term “mainstream” science carries all the downside of Snow’s two cultures. On this issue, there is no “mainstream” science – there is just science, a bunch of bloggers defying the universe, and a lot of paid flacks creating confusion. The science is open to anyone with a good high school education who cares to read a few books – and it all hangs together.

Fortunately for the sceptics and the politicians, the inertia of the system means the worst effects will likely not arrive for 3 decades or so. With a bit of luck, they will be dead before the mob arrives.

Alphonse
Alphonse
11 years ago

Can’t we get our terminology straight?

If I insure my house even though I doubt it will ever burn down, I’m a house fire sceptic.

If I don’t insure my house because I’m convinced it will never burn down, I’m a house fire denialist.

Gummo Trotsky
11 years ago

Climategate starts to unravel (H/T John Quiggin). The denialists are going to cop some serious blow-back as this plays out.

Skeet
Skeet
11 years ago

the major drivers of climate change are solar activity, ENSO and changes in atmospheric composition.

And surface albedo. Which is why the falling ice levels in the Arctic is so important.

Peter T
Peter T
11 years ago

Alphonse

You can reasonably doubt your house will not burn down, and still insure it. You can reasonably believe your house will never burn down, and still insure it.

But if you stand on a beach and deny the existence of tides you have left reason behind. The laws of thermodynamics are inexorable. This put sceptics and denialists in the same basket for all practical purposes, although one may be merely ignorant and the other deliberately wilful.