Category Archives: Science/Environment

Curse of the Climate Zombies

A Report on the ‘Climate Change Debate’ hosted by Trinity Hall, Cambridge, 24th January 2011

Written by Rhiannon Mulherin

Many bemoan the lack of a ‘real debate’ on the validity of anthropogenic climate change. Maintaining that the issue has become so polarised that there is no possibility of a reasoned discussion on the topic. On one side there are the ‘Deniers’, vitriolic about colluding scientists and conspiracies within the mainstream media. On the other there are the ‘Believers’ incensed by corporate political lobbyists and industry manipulation of the mainstream media. As revealing as this is of our universally low opinion of the Press, the more frustrating truth is that over the last decade the dialogue on climate change has stagnated.

On Monday night I was very excited by the opportunity to attend a highly publicised debate between two Cambridge Alumni: Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, one of the UK’s leading climate scientists, and Dr Walter Grant Scott, a trained nuclear physicist turned successful financier. Was I finally going to witness a ‘real debate’ (read: verbal slugging match) between two highly articulate and intellectual foes? Alas, no.

Sir Brian’s presentation was straightforward and refreshingly non-sensational. He presented evidence and carefully explained its implications. Dry and factual, I believe that the peer reviewed reference list for Sir Brian’s talk was very long indeed. The same could be said of Dr Grant Scott’s talk, but with a slight twist. Every argument he used has either been rebutted multiple times, or was an argument in support of climate science presented in such a way as to appear negative. With shock I realised I was encountering my first Climate Zombie.

These arguments that resurface again and again, no matter how many times they are rebutted, are the scourge of climate science. Zombie arguments are sinister misrepresentations that seek to become truth through repetition. They are old and the literature arraigned against them is strong, yet their ubiquity makes them incredibly powerful.

Whenever someone is billed as a ‘Climate Sceptic’ I prepare for the same old talking points. However, I thought to myself, surely in a city as educated as Cambridge no intelligent man would stand in front of an audience with a presentation that is so demonstrably false? Surely he would be laughed out of town? Amazingly, no one challenged him on it. The speakers could have been in different rooms for all the interaction they were allowed and out of the eight questions fielded, the three directed at Dr Grant Scott were on: his motivations for being a sceptic, the undeniable benefit of waste reduction and human resilience.

‘Debates’ of this type give climate sceptics an undeserved air of legitimacy and I dearly wish Sir Brian had been able to highlight the errors within his opponent’s presentation. A proper debate is not a series of statements that are allowed to pass unchallenged. I do not believe that the audience was wholly unaware of the nature of Dr Grant Scott’s talk, but rather that they did not feel sufficiently confident to accuse a guest of deliberately spreading lies. This list of Zombie talking points is very dangerous and we simply must arm ourselves with the facts and be prepared to argue them in any situation. If we are vigilant perhaps the dialogue can start to move forward again.

There are now many good websites that collate frequently used ‘sceptic arguments’ and supply rebuttals pitched at varying degrees of scientific training. Thankfully I am blessed with a tape recorder and access to the Internet. Hence it is my pleasure to present you with a list of Dr Grant Scott’s arguments against the validity of anthropogenic climate change and links to counter arguments prepared by people far better versed on this topic than myself.

Dr Walter Grant Scott:

“There is no doubt at all that the climate changes… there is equally little doubt that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but there is considerable debate as to whether manmade carbon dioxide makes any relevant difference to the global warming situation.”
It’s not Us

“There is no practical support for the alarmist consequences attributed to global warming”
Why a few degrees of global warmings matter

“It is very difficult to assign cause and effect of the parameters of the climate system.”
Correlation, Causation, Carbon, and Common Sense

“Most obviously the sun is the cause of our climate, all the cause of our climate”
Solar activity & climate: is the sun causing global warming?

“[Carbon dioxide] is not the only green house gas and it’s a tiny tiny little bit of the atmosphere… It is very difficult to imagine that a fraction of one third of one percent could be causing so much unhappiness… The other green house gas, the biggest by far in water vapour… Water vapour contributes 80% of the total heating of the planet… Can’t clouds be considered as some sort of a thermostat?”
Water vapour is the most powerful greenhouse gas

“Carbon dioxide is described as a pollutant… In the absence of carbon dioxide there would be no life… In historical terms when the temperature has gone up and carbon dioxide has gone up it has coincided with times of great prosperity. A warm climate is somewhere where we want to live”
CO2 is not a pollutant

“Observation would suggest that sea levels go up and down quite a lot over the time span of history… There are quite a number of little towns in the north of France called ‘something sur Mer’, the trouble is they’re no where near ‘la Mer’… Sea levels change.”
Note: This is the one point I haven’t been able to find easily on a rebuttal website. However, of the now isolated villages that I encountered Montreuil-Sur-Mer  was cut off due to the silting up of its estuary. Other villages may have suffered from post-glacial rebound. Interestingly there are laws in place governing the ownership of ‘new land’ acquired in this way.

“The planet has existed for over 4 billion years. Homo sapiens has only been here for 10,000 years. Is it not the height of sixties’ child arrogance to think that we matter a damn to the planet?”
Are humans too insignificant to affect global climate?

“It has become dogma that the ‘science is settled’… the very definition of science is that it’s not settled. [Explanation of measurement, hypothesis and testing], thus Newton’s hypothesis about gravitation… turned out to be just a subset of a more general theory. Special relativity did not become ‘settled science’, neither did general relativity, neither did quantum gravity.”
Is the science settled?

Note: The explanation of how science works is correct and is one that is often used against the common sceptic argument of “There is no consensus.”
Is there a scientific consensus on global warming?

“Climate science has not generated any useful or accurate predictions.”
The Models are Unproven
NASA paper using the paleoclimate record to advise upper limit for CO2 at 350ppm

“CO2 concentrations have risen this decade and the temperatures have not, which is in direct contrast to the IPCC forecast.”
IPCC overestimate temperature rise

“It appears from satellite measurements that temperatures have actually fallen from the peak in 1998”
Warming stopped in 1998
Did global warming stop in 1998, 1995, 2002, 2007, 2010?

“[The] marvellous Hockey Stick graph… the flat bit eliminated the medieval warming period and the little ice age… Michael Man’s chart suggested that we had an equilibrium atmosphere, which was being seriously disrupted by us… well that work was debunked completely… Ross McKitrick and Steve McIntyre proved it was wrong, and wrong in every dimension. Beyond that there is so much eye witness evidence that the medieval warming period did happen and the little ice age did happen.”
The hockey stick is broken: Rebuttal A
The hockey stick is broken: Rebuttal B

“University of East Anglia email debacle should be included in the ‘out of the window’ observations for not thinking that this is real”
What do the ‘Climategate’ hacked CRU emails tell us?

“A very significant part of the IPCC prognostication comes from computer modelling… given a large enough computer and enough parameterisations it is possible to fit just about anything”
How reliable are climate models?

“Incidentally it is just worth observing that models like the General Circulation Models have been used quite liberally in finance and that’s why the world is in the mess that its in.”
Note: I could not find anything on the use of GCMs in finance. Most financial models struggle with the chaotic nature of the markets. During the Question and Answer Dr Grant Scott implied that the climate was a chaotic system and again drew correlations to finance, so I am linking to the rebuttal of that here.
Chaotic Systems are not Predictable

“An assumption has to be made about the sensitivity of the climate… a small perturbation results in a positive feedback and an out of control spiral… such a climate… would have imploded many many centuries ago. In an insensitive climate a small perturbation would trigger a negative feedback… There is evidence from satellite measurements in the last decade that… the climate may just as plausibly be a neutral or negative feedback system as the reverse.”
How sensitive is our climate?

“What is clear is that the effect of clouds and the differential effects of high and low clouds is not put into these models.”
What is the net feedback from clouds?

“In the same was there is an inadequate understanding of the effects of aerosols in the atmosphere… manmade and natural.”
It’s aerosols
Aerosols Should Mean More Warming in the South

“IPCC CO2 rising goes with rising temperature, goes with equally plausible suggestion that CO2 concentration follows temperature but evaporation from the seas. Evidence suggests 600 year time lag.”
CO2 Lags Not Leads

“The model assumes anthropogenic CO2 is the driver… Some other driver? Recent satellite data shows negative. Science not settled”
Satellites Show Cooling

“The model fits the observed facts that has the Sun at the centre of our climate. The Sun’s output is not consistent… Sun spots have been know and observed for a very long time. Comparison of recorded solar cycles with the historical temperature shows a remarkable fit… Minimum in solar activity coincided with the little ice age and… 1975 chill spot.”
Do solar cycles cause global warming?

By studying the solar cycle… it is possible to make accurate predictions about temperature and weather developments. Solar scientists have been warning for a decade that the solar cycle would lead to cooling cycles for some time… ie cooler temperatures this decade ie bad winters. They have accurately predicted the massive deviation from IPCC forecasts”
What does Solar Cycle Length tell us about the sun’s role in global warming?

“They have been largely disregarded. One astrophysicist Piers Corbyn accurate forecast last winter and this winter… his ideas remain heretical. This seems to be the fate of anyone who believes it’s not the exhaust pipes of 4x4s that is causing the problem.”
2009-2010 winter saw record cold spells
The wikipedia article on Piers Corbyn

“Present levels of [sea ice] melt are consistent with past solar cycles and recorded memory… It appears now that the sea ice is recovering.”
Arctic icemelt is a natural cycle
Has Arctic sea ice returned to normal?

“The medieval warming period saw farming in Greenland”
Greenland used to be Green

“Polar bear population is not declining”
How will global warming affect polar bears?

“The Antarctic is not melting, although there has been a significant change in the shape.”
Is Antarctica losing or gaining ice?

“Glaciers are not vanishing… They come and go… but it’s nothing to do with manmade CO2.”
Glaciers have always grown and receded

“Global warming will expand the spread of disease? Not so. Carbon dioxide enhances food produce, bang goes malnutrition…Respiratory diseases are ameliorated by warm climates…There is no evidence that warming increases, or even influences, the habit of tick born disease”
What’s Wrong With Warm Weather
Positives and negatives of global warming

“Acid oceans and wide spread extinctions? Well the sea remains firmly alkaline and extinctions have been part of life since life itself began.”
Ocean acidification: global warming’s evil twin
Can animals and plants adapt to global warming?

“The marvel of this fear mongering… is that it is not going to show up in anybody in this room’s lifetime”
The United Kingdom Climate Projections
The UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP)

“It’s wonderful for politicians seeking to have power over the people. It’s perfect for the seekers of Nobel Prize notoriety, cause they’re not going to be proved wrong in their life time and it’s perfect for people looking for government funding.”
Global Warming is Just a Hoax

“…despite the fact that at present there is not warming taking place”
Evidence for global warming

“… despite the fact that there are no persuasive natural descriptions for the 20th century warming that do not rely on anthropogenic CO2…”
Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming

“Wind turbines. They don’t work…Why is the IPCC and the government so quiet of nuclear? It’s the only real alternative IF we have a problem”
Can renewables provide baseload power?

Ending with final quote by C.S. Lewis:

“Of all the tyrannies, tyrannies sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Note: I’m just going to supply the full quote and let people make up their own minds about how applicable it is.

Full Quote:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

How Sensitive Is The Climate?

Why ‘Fast Feedbacks’ are quite slow and ‘Slow Feedbacks’ might be rather fast.

This paper by Hansen et al. has lots of interesting material on climate sensitivity:
The climate sensitivity is the temperature response of the whole climate to a forcing of greenhouse gases. We know that there are two basic sorts of feedback processes going on in the climate. Firstly we know that as the temperature rises, relative humidity will stay roughly constant and thus absolute humidity will increase. This leads to more water vapour in the air; and water vapour is a strong greenhouse gas. Higher temperatures also has an ambigous (to this author) effect on clouds. The sum of all these atmospheric effects yields the ‘Charney’ definition of the climate sensitivity which is the equilibrium temperature rise from a doubling in CO2 concentrations; assuming that the land albedo and carbon (CO2/Methane) sinks stay constant. (of course they don’t stay constant; we will come to this). This has been argued to be close to 3Celsius (3C) for a doubling of CO2 or 0.75C/(W/m2)*. [*A doubling of CO2 gives an increase in radiative forcing of about 4W/m2, so multiply the C/(W/m2) by 4 to get the temperature change for doubling CO2]
Hansen et al. (1993) calculated the ice age forcing due to surface albedo change
to be 3.5 C/(W/m2). The total surface and atmospheric forcings led Hansen et al. (1993) to infer an equilibrium global climate sensitivity of 3C for doubled CO2 forcing, equivalent to 3/4 +/- 1/4 C/(W/m2). This empirical climate sensitivity corresponds to the Charney (1979) definition of climate sensitivity, in which ‘fast feedback’ processes are allowed to operate, but long-lived atmospheric gases, ice sheet area, land area and vegetation cover are fixed forcings. Fast feedbacks include changes of water vapour, clouds, climate-driven aerosols1, sea ice and snow cover. This empirical result for the ‘Charney’ climate sensitivity agrees well with that obtained by climate models (IPCC 2001). However, the empirical ‘error bar’ is smaller and, unlike the model result, the empirical climate sensitivity certainly incorporates all processes operating in the real world.
This ‘fast feedback’ is not all that fast however… The fast feedbacks being slow: 50% of the climate response happens in 30 years and the rest takes 1000 years. So we see in immediate terms (net of the cooling effect of aerosols) about 50% of the climate change that we are likely to see.

Now to the `slow’ feedbacks, namely the ice-albedo changes from melting ice and carbon dioxide and methane releases. How fast are they? And how serious?

In answer to the ‘how fast’, the simple answer is we don’t know. Traditionally, ice-melting has been seen as a slow process. But the old models may not be correct; as was shown by record melt rates in the early 21st century. Paleotological evidence points to times between the ice ages where sea levels have risen metres in a single decade. Hansen suggests that the relative stability of our epoch may have been to do with the fact that there was a zone of comfort between the melting of the great Eurasian and North American icesheets and the melting of Greenland and West Antarctica.
The second question is ‘how much’. One approach is bottom up: you add carbon cycle causation to the greenhouse effect.
If the effect of temperature on radiative forcing is given by s and the effect of radiative forcing on temperature by g, the feedback relation is simply:
DT(with feedback)/DT(without feedback)= 1/(1-g*s). This amounts to 15-78% more warming (Cox and Scheffer 2007):
the feedback of global temperature on atmospheric CO2 will
promote warming by an extra 15–78% on a century-scale.
This estimate may be conservative as we did not account for
synergistic effects of likely temperature moderated increase
in other greenhouse gases.
But as the authors point out, this does not include the effect of everything working together.
What evidence do we have of everything working together?

A cursory inspection of this graph of greenhouse gas forcing shows:
a) A very high correlation (suggesting a strong link between greenhouse gas concentrations and warming)
b) Episodes of very rapid temperature change and ice melt (over the time scale of decades – e.g. the ‘Younger Dryas’ event.
c) a correlation between the two variables of about 3C/(W/m2)
Now the temperature shifts at the poles by about twice the global temperature change, we can imply a correlation of about 1.5C/(W/m2).
This is about double the ‘fast feedback’ 0.75C/(W/m2) predicted byclimate models and would imply a temperature change of six celsius for a doubling in CO2, twice what we have already found. But this is not the same quantity. It’s not clear that the figure found by dividing the standard deviation of the Temperature graph by that of the Forcing graph is the quantity that Hansen asserts it is and that we want. What is going on?
So, following Scheffer and Cox, here is some basic theory of feedback loops…
Let’s assume that Forcing (in W/m2) leads to temperature increases in Celsius (C). Let’s assume both processes are linear:
Forcing –> Temp
\ /
< --

If we denote the initial change in forcing by f (before feedbacks)
and the final change in temperature by T (after feedbacks)
This gives T/f=g+g(sg)+g(sg)*(sg)…= g/(1-s*g)
What about the other direction?

Temp –> Forcing
\ /
< --

Here we observe only the final F and the final T
We see Forcing = (s+gs+gs*gs+…)t

F = t * s / (1-gs)

And T = t(1+gs+gs*gs+…)=t/(1-gs)
So F = s * T
T/F = 1/s

So if we observe T/F = 1.5 this implies that s = 2/3.

So the overall effect all depends on the overall strength of the feedback 1/(1-gs).

So ice core evidence provides us with information about the *strength of the Temperature-CO2 feedback* not on the overall greenhouse effect, including feedbacks.

The information about the gain of the whole system will therefore be gleaned from the size of the equivalent radiative forcing change that started the whole process off. If the huge temperature change and big CO2 increase was the result of a huge temperature forcing, this would imply that the feedback from temperature to CO2 was huge, but that the greenhouse effect was small.

Hansen’s paper provides some very interesting evidence of the magnitude of the forcings from precession, but does not go so far as to come to an estimate of the ‘equivalent’ forcing implied by the Milankovich cycles. It is clear that the forcing on a global sense is small, but as Hansen points out, the effect at the ice age boundary is larger.
My conclusion supports the methodology of Cox and Sheffer over that of Hansen. However, it suggests that it should be easy to extend Cox and Scheffer to include
other greenhouse gases and ice-albedo effects (by using the data that Hansen himself uses).
What is needed is to have a rough estimate of the magnitude of the original ‘equivalent temperature’ forcing (already including *local* ice-albedo feedbacks – since an insolation increase at the polar rim where ice is melting is clearly very effect; but *excluding* global feedbacks) that started the whole process off.
Hansen’s paper hints at it but does not profer an estimate. His guess is probably a bit better than mine. Perhaps he should guess. An approximate answer to the exactly relevant question may be as much use as the exact answer to an approximately relevant question.

Evidence for Climate Change and Related Policy Issues

Science Issues

Why do we think that the observed increased concentrations of CO2 and Methane will warm the earth?
1) Basic physics
2) Water vapour feedbacks from recent measurement of radiative outflow from satellites & Models integrating these observations
3) Observations of the climate warming up already (see below for detailed refs)
4) Observations CO2 of the ice ages (showing evidence for positive feedback as well as a very close link between temperature and CO2 and Methane)

Concentrations of CO2
Concentrations of CO2 went between 180 (ice age) and 280ppm (warm period between ice age). They are now at 388ppm: higher than the last few million years; the sun is also getting stronger over the very long term.

Science of Greenhouse Effect

  • Basic Physics: see this BBC site
  • Undergraduate level Physics: see Archer
  • Greenhouse gases increase the flow of energy into the Earth. It has been estimated that a concentration of CO2 of 550 parts per million (before industrialization the level was 275 parts per million) would leave to 3.7 Watts extra heat imput per square metre of the Earth’s surface area.

    Water vapour
    The Stefan Boltzmann law would shows that the heat radiated from the earth’s surface increases by about 3.2 Watts per square metre per degree Celsius rise in temperature. Therefore, the Earth’s temperature would need to rise by about 1.2 degrees Celsius to balance out this rise in temperature.

    However, we know that warmer air has a higher absolute level of humidity (in otherwords it contains more water vapour). Water vapour is also a greenhouse gas, and so this traps heat too.

    We can estimate that water gives a positive feedack of -1.6 Watts per square metre per degree Celsius rise in temperature.

    This should be compared to ‘StefanBoltzmann’ extra heat flow of 3.2W/m2K, giving net effect of 1.6W/m2K

    When we include this effect (but assume no other feedbacks), that means that the earth would have to rise in temperature by 2.3 Celsius (not 1.2 Celsius) before the outflow of heat balanced the extra inflow.

    So CO2 drives temperature, that increases humidity, and that leads to the water vapour feedback, which can be observed. See this article.

    All the evidence is put together with computer models, but we don’t really need computer models to estimate these issues, we can work it out ourselves from science and observations

    Evidence of warming

    Specific Fingerprints

    Observed Impacts

    Very many different observations around the world e.g. temperature measurements, rate of glacier melt, species shifts, Artic sea ice, sea surface temperatures, coral reef bleaching, heat waves:

    Most of these show some evidence of climate change. People will I’m sure, come to their own conclusions.


    There are some arguments about climate change by self-styled ‘sceptics’. Here is an explanation of the more complex issues.

    Policy Issues

    Uncertainty & Risk?
    Of course, there is always discussion and debate, but the fact that there are big risks shouldn’t blind us to doing something to secure ourselves against those risks.

    We know that the earth responds to a lag to our behaviours. We already have seen serious effects to climate change (see ‘evidence of warming’ elsewhere in this reply) and the rate of increase of greenhouse gas concentrations is itself accelerating (think of putting the foot down when you see a road traffic accident). Don’t you think it might be good to be a little bit safe rather than sorry?

    Kyoto Ineffective??
    We need a much stronger treaty that doesn’t only include global targets, but also coordinated taxes.

    It has been estimated that the investment required to decarbonize the UK is around £600bn (which would spent mostly on UK resources). The UK consumes 1.7million barrels of oil per day or 620 million barrels per year, with a value (at $80/bbl) of $50billion (£30billion).
    We use 91.1 billion cubic metres of gas per year present, worth £11billion (at 35p per therm or 13p/cu m). So we spend more than £40bn per year on fossil fuels; replacing this with renewable and nuclear infrastructure could get a return on our investment of 15 years. Not bad.

    Good, strong, climate policies could increase investment in real infrastructure, providing jobs, and making us less dependent on foreign oil!

    A Risky Business

    By Stephen Stretton.

    I was talking about risk last night with a couple of friends. I was asked why climate change is a risk to individuals, nations and the world. Here’s why. The following distribution describes the estimated chance of different warmings if we give up producing CO2 and other greenhouse gases now (actually if we stopped in 2005). You will see that we have a more than evens chance already of melting the greenland ice sheet (7m of sea level rise, enough to reach the shores of Cambridge). Over the next few years we will reach the same chance of destroying the amazon rain forest (it’s even possible that if climate change was compounded by drought, a vast fire might erupt). Big risks.

    Committed Warming


    The commentary “Stop Worrying Start Panicking?” on this is here:

    The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the basic evidence about why the planet is cooking (in particular, how we determine the radiative forcing of different gases). I’ve found this article which appears quite good:

    Ocean CO2 uptake update

    The IPCC AR4 Scientific Basis report is a real goldmine of information, even if it isn’t perfect, as I recently pointed out.

    As I discussed in a previous post, an idea I later developed a little, policies to address global warming must rely on an understanding of how natural systems will respond to the increase in atmospheric CO2. Will the oceans keep absorbing a couple of GtC worth of CO2 each year (as estimated since 1990 – AR4, p.26, as referenced previously) or more (as implicitly assumed by many) or less? And will land ecosystems manage to take up more or less carbon than in the past? Especially if we continue to reduce the area of ecosystems able to do this – since agricultural land clearly does not progressively store carbon.

    I’ve been looking at a critical section in AR4 on ocean uptake of CO2. This is on p.403-5 (though the main section on the carbon cycle is 7.3, p.511 ff). I quote:

    “The fraction of net CO2 emissions taken up by the ocean (…) was possibly lower during 1980 to 2005 (37% +/- 7% [that is, 118 +/- 19 of 283 +/- 19GtC of emissions]) compared to 1750 to 1994 (42% +/- 7% [that is, 53 +/- 9 of 143 +/- 10 GtC of emissions)… The decrease in oceanic uptake fraction would be consistent with the understanding that the ocean CO2 sink is limited by the transport rate of anthropogenic carbon from the surface to the deep ocean, and also with the nonlinearity in carbon chemistry that reduces the CO2 uptake capacity of water as its CO2 concentration increases”. (my inserts in [ ]’s – based on Table 5.1, p.404).

    And we also have to worry about “a decrease in CO2 uptake capacity” as the ocean warms.

    On the other hand section (p.521) notes that:

    “The ocean uptake has increased by 22% between the 1980s and 1990s, but the fraction of emssions (fossil plus land use) taken up by the ocean has remained constant.”

    though of course the ocean “knows” nothing about emissions – all it can possibly be affected by is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    We really need to get a handle on what the oceans are going to do in the future since it makes such a huge difference to the level of carbon emissions we can get away with. It’ll be the first section I turn to in AR5. As AR5 is due around 2012 (I suppose), maybe we should have a think about where we focus scientific resources now…

    Some thoughts on sorts of science sources

    OK, it’s not quite up there in the tongue-twister stakes as my best creation: “We’re wearing weird red wellies”. Try saying that quickly after a few pints!

    About 10 days ago my Sunday morning was spoilt by the sight of the really rather scary, formerly reassuringly plump (maybe he’s become a vegan) ex-Chancellor of the UK Exchequer Nigel Lawson on Andrew Marr’s weekly political couch-fest. Why had he crawled out of his coffin? Well, to plug his book, of course. It is indeed one of the world’s great mysteries why the BBC is so careful not to mention products by name (to utter “Coca-Cola” without permission would be blasphemous in Beebland), yet so shamelessly allows so many people to promote their products. The occasion of Ryanair’s financial results, for example, seem to provide a free 1 minute advertising slot for Michael O’Leary. I’m surprised he doesn’t move to quarterly reporting.

    Presumably, if you have good PR help, a public profile or the right connections, you can get as much time to plug a book on the BBC as you want, because, blow me down if I didn’t hear Count Lawson again on the radio a few days ago, on some type of pick of the week show on Radio 4. At least he was being grilled this time – listen and learn, Andrew Marr. But surely there should be some criteria for whether a book is worthy of BBC airtime? E.g. positive reviews by experts in the field?? Tricky, but how could anything be worse than the apparent old school tie basis of selection we have today?

    Get this, Lawson’s book was turned down, he said on TV, by 7 UK publishers, but he has a “good agent” who managed to get it published overseas. Makes you wonder if it’s really worthy of promotion in the mainstream media, don’t it? I was therefore going to put TV bottom of the list of reliable science sources.

    But then I read the Times’ review of Nigel Lawson’s contribution to the debate. Astonishingly, the reviewer, an Alexander Cockburn, chides Lawson for accepting the anthropogenesis of global warming! In fact, Cockburn’s review leaves me with the impression that Lawson may be saying something useful. A view dispelled by a somewhat more comprehensive (family connections?) review in the Spectator. Lawson, it seems (before I rush out to buy his work), doesn’t deny global warming, he merely downplays it, in order to argue against doing anything much at all (I’ll be more specific when I’ve read the book – which I will likely do, because, unfortunately, publicity grants de facto credibility, requiring a response). Insidious.

    So, let’s award 0/10 for the informativeness of the mainstream print media (Times) and 1/10 for the broadcasters (BBC), who at least attempt to be impartial. Let’s give general current affairs (Spectator) 2/10. And let’s give published works 3/10. At least the publishers tried to stop Lawson, if to no avail; perhaps his memory of the Spycatcher affair stood him in good stead.

    Now, compare this piece by Gwyn Prins from the Guardian’s Commentisfree site. For all I know, Gwyn Prins makes similar points about the ineffectiveness and counterproductivity of existing policy responses to GW as does Nigel Lawson, but at least he does not base his argument on false premises. In fact, I was interested enough to download Prins’ paper “The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy” (written jointly with Steve Rayner). Prins & Rayner argue that GW is serious and urgent, but the Kyoto mechanism ineffective. They therefore advocate “enlightened self-interest” (ouch!). Still, a step forward from the “downplaying” strategy of a failed UK Chancellor (the Lawson Boom was followed by an inflationary bust – anyone else notice a pattern starting to develop? – let’s ignore problems until it’s too late, shall we, Nigel?).

    So, let’s say 4/10 for op-ed (as the Yanks call it), and 5/10 for online publications.

    But what I want to draw attention to are the exchanges in the comments on Prins’ piece. First, let’s backtrack a little. Lawson (like Nigel Calder) apparently claims the Earth is no longer warming, since annual average global temperatures have not returned to their 1998 record level. Now, as we all know, temperatures are bound to fluctuate from year to year about a long-term warming trend. All the scatter of annual mean temperatures tells us is that the annual variability of transfer of heat from the surface of the oceans exceeds the amount of heat gained by the planet each year. But, if the oceans were to cease gaining heat, without an overt cooling cause (such as a volcano) then GW theory would be in trouble – it would imply (since the oceans are so large and important in this context) that the Earth is no longer cooler than it needs to be for it to be in energy balance. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the IPCC’s 4AR implies. Yes, Fig. 5.1 on page 390 shows the oceans cooling over the last few years. Does the IPCC really explain this anomaly? No. It is “bottom-up” science – based more on observation than theory-driven.

    So, say 8/10 to the IPCC. Maybe they need to put a bit more effort into the coherence of the whole package, and resolve or at least discuss these sorts of problems before rushing their 900 pages to CUP.

    Anyway, I was mulling over this problemette when I noticed it discussed by PacificGatePost and deconvoluter in the comments on Prins’ Guardian piece. Phew! It turns out there was a problem with the measurements. deconvoluter refers to a Realclimate piece that gives chapter and verse.

    So let’s give blogs (Commentisfree) 6/10 and specialist blogs (Realclimate) 9/10. Now we’re getting somewhere.

    But there’s more. The Prins piece was in response to an article in Nature, by Roger Pielke et al arguing that the IPCC scenarios (actually I consider these unrealistic and irrelevant, but let’s put that to one side for now) are over-optimistic. The scenarios – shock!, horror! – assume some carbon “savings” will occur without specific policy to reduce emissions (um, anyone seen the price of oil today?). Now, even though the Pielke article and a Nature editorial are accessible on the internet, much of their content is subscriber only, so it does rather perturb me that so much debate (rather than actual science) is being conducted (in Scienglish) in the pages of Science and Nature. Not their fault, but what are the mainstream media doing? I believe as many people as possible need to develop their own understanding of the science and the issues. “Trust me, I’m a scientist” is only going to get us so far.

    So, 7/10 in our informativeness competition to science magazines.

    I gave the Realclimate site 9/10 – for trying to bridge the gap between the scientific world and normal people – but they’re not the real winner. 10/10, and the top prize goes to – yes, you’ve guessed it! – the internet itself which has made all this possible. Without it, I suggest the GW debate would be years behind even where it is now.

    Sir David King on Climate Change

    On Friday, I saw Sir David King talk about his new book on climate change: ‘The Hot Topic‘. He came across as you’d expect: warm, authoritative, knowledgeable – the antithesis of ignorance.

    One way to measure the advances made in the twentieth century is to look at the life expectancy, which has gone up from around 45 at the start of the 20th century to around 80 at the end. Women’s fertility has dropped as well – In the last 10 years the fecundity has gone down in Latin America from 5.5 to 2. But the population growth is still a given. at over 9 billion by the middle of the century.

    It is this population growth that is causing our problems. The challenges of the 21st century: food, water, energy, security, disease etc. are strongly linked together – and climate change is a common factor.

    One of the key policy tools for solving the problem is *forward looking regulation*. For example, telling car manufacturers that cars must be of a certain standard. Johnson Matthey – a local company – in fact even now makes very efficient catalytic converters. The air comes out cleaner than it goes in!!

    After all this regulation of local pollutants you are simply left with CO2 is a colourless, odourless gas. Safe of course. But of course it has serious effects.

    Look at the relation between CO2 and temperature. We know the temperature was at the Palaeocene-Eocene maximum about 8-10 warmer than it is now.

    This has huge impacts, not least on biodiversity. The mountain gorillas of central Africa need 40 or so plants to survive, and lives in a specialised bamboo forest. The gorillas move with the – isotherms up the mountain but eventually they reach the top of the mountain and there is nowhere to run to. We’re not capable of recreating their natural habitat.

    One difficulty is negotiating with so many countries that are in different current and historical states. e.g. US & Canada pollute twice as fast as Europe.

    However we must involve the developing world too – as a graph of projected future BAU emissions shows. To reduce carbon emissions to safe levels, emissions need to peak at about 9GtC in next 10 years for 450ppmCO2only and about 12GtC per an in next 20 years for 550ppmCO2only. This is a huge task. But we’d better start now!

    In short then, climate change is ‘The Hot Topic‘!

    Implications of ‘peak oil’ – Tim’s Translation Service

    No sooner had I digested the Target Atmospheric CO2 paper than another one (pdf) arrived, courtesy of James Hansen’s mailing list.

    The paper “Implications of ‘peak oil’ for atmospheric CO2 and climate”, Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen (pdf) makes a similar argument to that in “Target Atmospheric CO2″, though there are some differences.

    I’ll try to keep the translation brief this time.


    The paper seeks to show that we can keep CO2 below 450ppm [Hansen argued for less in “Target Atmospheric CO2″] by avoiding burning coal to the atmosphere, and using a high price of CO2 to deter the use of unconventional (e.g. tar sand) and other expensive sources of oil. Various Peak Oil scenarios imply that we can keep below 450ppm CO2, based on the Bern carbon cycle model, with both a static pulse response function (PRF) and a dynamic PRF. That is, even if some carbon cycle feedbacks are allowed for, CO2 can be kept below 450ppm if we burn all the existing conventional oil and natural gas reserves.

    Continue reading Implications of ‘peak oil’ – Tim’s Translation Service