Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Chill Wind Blows Through Tokyo...

I hope the catchy hook title engenders humor. Today we respond to a comment thread that I apparently overlooked, and one that is relevant and fun. The diary is at redstate (comment #26) regarding the coming ice age. I spent a bit of time trashing my peers, but Tokyo Tom was not satisfied with that, and as his comments were evidence of more intelligence than rhetoric, I will respond in kind.

For those who have not guessed, my heat inducing commentary is volatile and at times speculative. On the other side, when it comes to science, physics, and especially geophysical fluid dynamics, we can be more precise, and rely on established work done over the last fifty years. So in that light, the following will have less heat, more solidity. But, I will refrain from primary references, and simply make 'sane' comments.

Now, Tom begins by comparing 'local' environmental anthropogenic impacts and 'global' climate change statistics. This is a common problem, and one scientist do quite often. That is not to say that some local effects could be observed globally, but until you do, it is fallacious to make the assumption. As this impacts politics and environmental regulations, some of the policies we implement are based on local assumptions, without justification for larger scale use. If this sounds like I am a advocate of reduced regulation, that is incorrect. My personal preference is for careful and common sense based maintenance of the environment we live in.

How does this relate to global warming? Tom makes the comparison between environmental science, and specifically carcinogen exposure, to the statistics used in the global warming debate. I could not agree more with identifying carcinogens and regulating them before we expose people, that is common sense. However, there are two fallacies in the comparison with global warming. One, there is no indication that a warmer globe is detrimental to society, despite all the Doom and Gloom scenarios popularized in the media. Two, there is still not a direct connection with global warming and anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gasses. The hypothesis is there, and it is possible that we have influenced the global temperature, the problem is that there are so many factors unproven, that contribute large amounts of error to such observations, making the conclusion of direct anthropogenic influence a less than scientific conclusion.

I hope that I need not return to the same arguments surrounding all of the details. Yes, I see the temperature records, the CO2 measurements, the sea ice coverage. All of these are changing, and some of these changes may be linked to societies waste. Certainly you can link CO2 emission to industrialization. But can you then say that it is the cause of warmer temperatures? Why did the global temperature decrease from 1945 to 1975? If you can not explain that, you can not claim you know what caused the temperature to spike in the eighties and nineties. If you claim it is a factor of the PDO, then tell me how that oscillation is affecting temperature now, and in the next thirty years. It is a problem of definition as well. The global atmospheric heat content is the equivalent of the heat contained in the first meter of ocean. One meter only? Why, we could change the global atmospheric temperature simply by some long term change in ocean circulation. Yet we have sparse oceanic data to link into this picture, resulting in large model variability.

In response to Tom's aggravation about my position regarding this, I would give this explanation. It is unprincipled science that rides populist agendas simply for the chance at increased funding. And I see some of what is happening in the Climate community of scientists as exactly that. Hundreds of millions of dollars is currently going to fund this type of research, and it is still in its juvenile stages. I agree with the validity of the research, but not the current crop of ill founded conclusions. Yes, conclusions based on models that have large amounts of error, and are governed more by statistical parameters, not dynamics. Don't get me wrong, I think that these same models are indispensable, and will make a significant contribution to future choices we make as a society, but at this juncture, they are not accurate in climate prediction.

Tom asks the following:
Or are you both (i) taking issue with the scientific consensus and the bona fides all the scientific organizations that are telling us about climate change, and (ii) arguing that it is wrong for our elected leaders and others to advocate the we DO something?
Yes, and yes. I take issue with a few peoples conclusions, and a large number of scientists in the community who are perfectly willing to jump on the bandwagon instead of doing the necessary questioning of said science. Generally, science needs to be proved before policy is generated, but again, that brings us back to what policy should be. Yes, lets do something! What do you propose? First prove what you intend to legislate is going to benefit society. Hard to do if the threat has not materialized, and the factors generating the threat that has not materialized are not scientifically established fact. Beyond that, what is going to benefit society? Here we stray into the realm of global politics, and most readers can guess that if we stay here, much rhetoric will follow.

Next, the question is asked what I find convincing in terms of climate change. Well, I find it amazing that recent (last millenia) regional climatic conditions were so variable. What caused the mini ice age in Europe? Why has the glaciation receded so dramatically pre-industrialization? Are there long term fluctuations yet to be discovered in the recent climate record? The forty year Aleutian low is fascinating, how is it and similar oscillations connected to global temperature? Is there data set yet to be developed that accurately tracks solar output? We have such a short record of total atmospheric temperature, and it does not correlate precisely with terrestrial measurement, will the next twenty years show a closer fit? These are some of the questions that will give us a better picture of how our climate changes, but even answering these does not get us accurate predictions. For that, we need synoptic ocean observations, and that isn't even being planned.

Tom asks where I think we are headed. Scientifically speaking, I don't have a clue. The most accurate prediction we have right now is the six month lead on predicting El Niño. Weather and local climate is restricted to a week or less. Most other prediction have the same accuracy as the Farmers Almanac. Of course, there will be even more CO2 generated, but what does it do, and how will it affect us I can not say. The ocean is a sponge for CO2, and a sink as well. Yet, some of the water subducted at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has yet to return to the surface! How do these long term cycles change?

One statement I do not like, that many have bought into is:
The record is clear that we have had a major impact on levels of greenhouse gases, which are now at levels not seen for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years (cite later if you want it), and that this increase, even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, are going to force more climate change over the next hundred years.
The principal 'greenhouse gas' is water vapor. We do not have global long term coverage of atmospheric water vapor, and the terrestrial time series of humidity is not sufficient. If you can not characterize the most abundant greenhouse gas, how can you make the claim that we have had a major impact on greenhouse gases? Furthermore, the water vapor issue complicates many models, adding another layer of error which has not been parametrized accurately. You again assume that anthropogenic CO2 has forced climate change, and will do more in the future. It is possible, but clearly only a weak hypothesis at this point. It may be a perfectly valid hypothesis, but it is not a proved one.

Finally we need to address the Arctic, I said I wouldn't get technical, so go read Lindsay and Zhang, "The thinning of arctic sea ice, 1988-2003: have we passed a tipping point?", in the Journal of Climate and see what you think. Clearly something dramatic has occurred, and one of the factors is the gradual increase in the regional temperature. But, the confluence of other factors was also needed in this modeling effort to explain what has been occurring. It will be interesting to see what occurs in the Arctic, but to asses dramatic doom for all the world is not responsible. Claims of unprecedented and dramatic changes need to be put in context. Forget about millions of years, lets talk about reasonable changes within the last ten millenia. What would you consider more dramatic, loss of permanent ice in the Arctic, or an increase in the sea level of 50 meters? That is five centimeters every 100 years, but in the context of recent history, a arguably huge societal effect. Oh, and no anthropogenic causation at all.

In closing I would like to just comment on the time scales in this debate and be an advocate of common sense approaches to policy. Clearly mankind does not plan ahead actively for multi-generational problems. It is outside our grasp to actively and constructively work on something that will not appear in our lifespan. Society on the other hand, responds to environmental pressures over long time scales in effective ways. One of those resources is primary research and education. We may study and research something that will not be understood or implemented for many generations. For instance, non-linear equations and theory were discovered in the late Victorian era, but solutions and applications did not happen until the 1960's. Couple this with the growing need of resources and energy for an increased population and we would be wise to increase our efforts in terms of science and technology. I see the emergence of new technology linked with the marketplace, and how this plays out will determine the measure of future success. We will need to address energy resources, as there is a limit to geologic petroleum. We may need to adapt to climate changes more rapidly than society has in the past. But both of these things will occur on time scales that allow for adaptation, and if not, humanity will experience a setback. Yet to predict such is the realm of fiction at this point. We need more reasonable dialog, less pandering.

1 comment:

Tokyo Tom said...

Carlos, you’ve written a lot, in a calm tone, but actually said very little. I appreciate the time and tone, but am disappointed that you’ve punted. I conclude that you do so out of predilections that are unstated, and out of a lack of understanding of the economic principles involved.

My chief point in the RedState post was to note that it may be justified to take policy actions based on correlations without establishing direct causal links – so that, just as we regulate pollution and carcinogens in the US based on statistical correlations even though it is not possible to link these directly with damages sustained in any particular cases, it may very well be justified to take action to limit possible anthropogenically-forced climate change based on our current knowledge of how the climate system works and the role played by the greenhouse gases that we are pumping into the atmosphere (or otherwise affecting indirectly, such as methane and water vapor).

You agree that it is “common sense” to regulate carcinogens (neatly skipping past the regulation of air and water pollution), but offer no principled basis for refusing to take similar action on climate change. You refer to two “fallacies” relating to climate change, but it seems that essentially you are simply not satisfied as an evidentiary matter that action is justified at this point (rather than being opposed in principle to the concept that action can be justified based upon statistical correlations/expectations of costs - which can take the form either of likely or simply unpredictable consequences).
Based upon what I understand the bulk of climate scientists believe (including the AGU, the NAS and the chief international national academies of science), I understand that we have a sufficiently clear idea of the present and likely future consequences of human-induced climate change to justify taking modest actions now, and to try to coordinate with China and India to reduce the amount of GHCs that they can otherwise be expected to produce.

This is not based upon media “Doom and Gloom”, but what the scientific community is convinced of, and what captains of industry and political leaders have been persuaded of. The growth in levels of anthropogenically affected GHGs is startling large, and the effects being manifested are as well – Arctic thawing is particularly noticeable (25% of Arctic ocean ice in three decades; rapid melting of Greenland), and Lindsay and Zhang suggest that it will only be reversed through a pronounced cold period – something quite unlikely, as the open Arctic will continue to amplify the anthropogenic forcing.

We are looking at significant changes in the earth’s temperature; mankind as a whole can of course adopt and survive, but there are costs involved in the adaption and in the damages that are already being manifested – changes in hydrological cycles and water availability, increased susceptibility to pests such as the pine bark beetle, coastal erosion and buckling of roads and structures as permafrost melts. There are also real but uneconomic costs as species are disrupted and fail to adapt to the rapid change.

From an economics viewpoint, this problem is arising because of externalities in the behavior of all those producing and consuming fossil fuels and other GHCs, but who do not pay the price for their actions – as use of the atmosphere is largely unregulated (either through private property rights or through governments). Globally essentially we have a “tragedy of the commons” problem, since negative behavior is borne by all, so individual actors are essentially subsidized. The regulatory goal would be to cease the subsidy, and to make people bear the full costs of their actions.

As a background matter, I would note that other aspects of fossil fuel use also is subsidized, in the forms of pollution in development and consumption that is borne by all, by public road expenditures, and by vast expenditures on “defense” by the US – efforts to deal with climate change matters will to some degree offset these other subsidies. By dealing with these externalities, we actually improve the efficiency of the economy and general welfare.

In this connection, it is worth noting that doing nothing is itself a course of action, and pondering whom this course of action benefits. Who is funding non-action? Who is getting political gains from saying there is no problem or it’s not sufficiently proven?

I presume you are also aware of the growing consensus of opinion among world religious leaders to proactively deal with potential climate change, including most recently the "Statement of the Evangelical Climate Initiative" by a coalition of conservative Christian leaders in the USat: The statement is full of useful links to scientific and other relevant documents; there is also a very interesting resources page: The positions of the US Catholic church and the Vatican on climate change are here for your reference:;

I appreciate your further thoughts.

Regards, Tom