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.