Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Is Global Warming Back, Baby?

I get very annoyed with people who steadfastly believe in something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Therefore, when this article was published, it would have been hypocritical of me not to sit up, take note and wonder if maybe this global warming thingy was still as convincing as I originally thought it was.

The article revealed that there was a sudden spike in temperatures during the medieval period, which accelerated the temperature at a rate even higher than the 'global warming' of today.

This clearly couldn't have been caused by 'greenhouse gases' or burning fossil fuels because mankind hadn't even discovered America yet, let alone invented the internal combustion engine.
The Telegraph tactfully admit that this spike in temperatures over a thousand years ago 'seriously undermines' current theories on global warming - lending credence to the conservative consensus, which suggests global temperatures are raised or lowered for a variety of reasons (such as solar radiation) and the effect mankind has on these global spikes is negligible.

Because it initially supports their argument, many conservative pundits have leapt behind the report and the science that supports it - which creates an interesting situation.

For the first time in a long while, the conservatives are basing their arguments on established scientific facts (expediently, since for the first time in a long while, the facts seem to be supporting their position.)

This is a great improvement over previous conservative policy regarding the environment. Take the attitude of Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watts, who famously announced: “We don't have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.”

Given this opportunity, I think it's worth having a quick peek into the question of global warming to see which side presents a more convincing case.

The Case for Global Warming

The case supporting Global Warming is based on a very simple equation. Over the course of the last century, the increase in fossil fuel consumption has dramatically increased the amount of Carbon Dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.

Simultaneously, scientists have recorded a steady rising in world temperatures, with winters becoming shorter (but not milder) and the ice-fields on the north and south poles melting at an accelerated pace.

The rise in temperatures and the increase in the production of Carbon Dioxide seem to be in direct correlation. As we've burnt more fossil fuels and produced more Carbon Dioxide, the world temperatures have increased accordingly.

This establishes a very convincing argument to link the production of Carbon Dioxide with an increase in global temperatures. Scientists theorize that Carbon Dioxide creates a 'greenhouse effect' which lets heat from the sun enter Earth's atmosphere, but doesn't allow that heat to dissipate once it bounces off the planet's surface. It gets trapped (as Steve Punt described it, 'like a fart under a duvet.')

The environmentalists argue that this is why the world's getting hotter - and unless we dramatically cut down the production of 'greenhouse gases' through the burning of fossil fuels, it will continue to do so.

The Case Against Global Warming

Conservatives are deeply skeptical about the effects of 'greenhouse gases.' This might partly be due to political expediency - since nobody wants to support a theory which means we'll have to sacrifice our gas guzzling pick-up trucks and pay four times as much for airline tickets.

But this recent report, identifying the 'Medieval Warm Period' as even hotter than now, does shove a spanner firmly into the works. If global warming is caused by burning fossil fuels, how come we had a hot spell in the 12th century, when the only thing men liked to burn were witches?

The answer lies in historical climatography - which is the study of the world's climate as it changed over not just recorded history, but way back into the past as well (which is accomplished by looking at ice-core samples and things like that.)

Fundamentalist Christians have to stop playing the global warming game at this point, since the only way to refute global warming is to look deep into the Earth's history (using science that firmly establishes that the world is more than 7,000 years old.)

But for the rest of the conservative movement, the science is pretty irrefutable. By studying the evidence, it's revealed that the world has indeed had it's 'warm spells' and 'cool spells' throughout history and they've been entirely independent of mankind's interference.

In fact, there's been a sharp spike and drop in temperature roughly every hundred thousand years (resulting in global events like the Ice Age) and plenty of spikes and troughs in between (explaining the hot spell in the 12th century, following by a 'mini ice age.')

Given this evidence, it's entirely reasonable for conservatives to argue that the current spike in world temperatures is just one of the planet's regular 'hot flushes' and mankind (with all our greenhouse-gas churning industry) plays no part in the equation at all.

Examining the Evidence

But don't fire up the grill just yet. Considering that both environmentalists and conservatives are basing their arguments on the same evidence, it's worth examining it a little more closely.

The environmentalists argue that the increase in global temperature is based on the increase in Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. If that's the case, what caused the increase during the Medieval period (when the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions was flatulent cows?)

Remarkably, the answer is the same. Carbon Dioxide.

In fact, scientists can use core samples and other methods to accurately measure how much Carbon Dioxide was around during the warm and cool periods in history - and there's a link. The more Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, the hotter it got.

If that's the case, where did all the Carbon Dioxide come from? Well, it's actually with us right now. Carbon Dioxide can be held in solution in the world's oceans, or released into the atmosphere, or processed by forests and plants. In fact, it's these geological processes and biological innovations that have caused the level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere to fluctuate so much (and therefore raise or lower the world's temperatures.)

Solar radiation is also argued to play a part, with sun spots and solar intensity apparently causing spikes and troughs in the world temperature (like the Little Ice Age that followed the 'Medieval Warm Period.') This is far from an exact science, though. Nobody quite understands the correlation (In fact Spencer R. Weart, author of The Discovery of Global Warming 2003, is quoted as saying: "For a young researcher to entertain any statement of sun-weather relationships was to brand oneself a crank.")

In any event, in order to embrace the historical climatography argument against global warming, conservatives have had to concede one very important point. That Carbon Dioxide is responsible for raising the world's temperature, whether it's man made or not.

A Lot of Hot Air

It's this realisation that causes the problems.

Because although we can examine historical patterns and determine that mother nature is just as capable of warming the planet as our nation's SUV drivers, it raises one very alarming question.

History has shown that the world temperature will raise and lower independently of mankind's involvement. But who says that's what's happening at the moment?

Even if it isn't as severe as the 'natural' warm period during the 12th century, the temperature of planet earth is rising right now. The earth might have natural 'hot' cycles - but who's the say we're scheduled for one now?

If anything, the evidence suggests that we're not. Mankind has spent the last century churning out exhaust fumes from cars and factories, generating an artificial and entirely unnatural supply of Carbon Dioxide. Carbon Dioxide, as we've proven above, raises the world temperature.

It's entirely possible - likely, even - that the Carbon Dioxide that regularly exists in nature is harmlessly in solution in the oceans at the moment and we're not 'scheduled' for a hot spell. We've just created one ourselves by making all this extra carbon dioxide.

Warm spells and hot periods might be a natural part of the planet's existence - but this particular warm spell is anothing but natural.

Does it matter?

To many conservatives, it doesn't seem like such a big deal if the temperature goes up a few degrees. Surely, if these cyclical patterns continue, this period of 'global warming' will surely be followed by another period of 'global cooling' as occurred after the 'Medieval Warm Period.'

Dr Philip Stott, the professor emeritus of bio-geography at the University of London, has a pragmatic outlook on the whole thing. "It makes one wonder why there is so much fear of global warming. During the Medieval Warm Period, the world was warmer even than today, and history shows that it was a wonderful period of plenty for everyone."

Prof Stott argued that severe famines and economic collapse followed the onset of the Little Ice Age around 1300. "When the temperature started to drop, harvests failed and England's vine industry died."

But the situation in the Medieval days was different to how it is now. The world has many billions more residents - and one effect of global warming (whether it's natural or man-made) will be rising water levels.

I live near New York. If the water levels keep rising because the world keeps getting hotter, my adopted city is going to end up looking like this!

There's another consideration, too. Even if the warmth generated by global warming is no worse than the 'hot spells' that occur naturally - the cause behind them (the Carbon Dioxide produced through industry and burning fossil fuels) is a source of greenhouse gases not produced naturally.

I mentioned earlier that the Carbon Dioxide responsible for the 'Medieval Warm Period' is already with us, existing in nature and either in solution in the oceans (during a temperate spell) or in the atmosphere itself (causing a 'hot spell'.)

All this extra Carbon Dioxide, produced by millions of cars and enormous factories, is extra Carbon Dioxide, chucked up seemingly randomly into the atmosphere.

Which means that when the Earth is scheduled for another hot spell, it won't just be the naturally occurring greenhouse gases trapping heat in the planet's atmosphere. It will be all the extra Carbon Dioxide we've generated too. Basically doubling the impact of this 'warm period.' Possibly turning 'warm' into 'hot.'

Instead of undermining the case for Global Warming, the article in The Telegraph actually cements the science behind rising world temperatures. Historical climatography proves that the theory linking Carbon Dioxide emissions to rising temperatures isn't just a theory.

Nature increases the temperature by producing greenhouse gases. If mankind continues to churn our greenhouse gases, surely it's only natural that we'll make the temperature increase too?

If the two should ever happen at the same time... I'd recommend breaking out a rubber dinghy and some swimming trunks.


Tom said...

The big question underlying global warming is "what is the earth's sensitivity to increased CO2"? Response to CO2 is logarithmic... which means that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will raise the temperature by 1 unit. The fundamental question of climate science, that has yet to be answered adequately, is how big that unit is. If it's huge, then that's a problem.... but if it's small, that's no big deal.

A big problem is that it's hard to determine how big the rise is, since many effects confound it. For example, over the course of the century, thermometers that were once in rural fields became surrounded by buildings, asphalt, car radiators, air conditioners, etc. The paint used on the thermometer-shelters changed from whitewash to latex-based, which might have different thermal properties. So the question is how much of the rise is real, and how much is measurement effect? See surface stations for more about this.

The picture of a flooded NYC seems a little disingenuous to me. The worst-case sea-level rise predicted by the IPCC is 2 feet, and 1 foot is more likely. That's about the same as the rise between 1850 and today... and since 1850, NYC gained area, rather than lost, area.

Is global warming something we should consider doing something about? Maybe. According to the telegraph, complying with Kyoto would cost $150 billion a year. There's a lot more pressing things we could do with that money, that solve more obviously pressing problems, like Aids and Malaria.

For a good discussion of this, I recommend Lomborg's book "Cool It", which talks about global warming in relation to the rest of the world's problems.

A final question is... how much would you be willing to suffer to cut global warming. Since at the end of the day, reducing energy usage means having a smaller house, driving less, turning the lights off more, buying less... a lowering of your standard of living. I'd need pretty convincing evidence before I'd be willing to make myself worse off for what looks like a relatively minor problem. (When people can fly to Bali on private jets to hold a climate conference, it tends to go against the urgency of reducing CO2 emissions.)

Trivia question: Is it better to spend $250M in 2000 or $1000M in 2100 to solve a problem?

Roland Hulme said...

He he. Yes, the New York pic showed what it would be like if the water rose 100 feet. You caught me.

"When people can fly to Bali on private jets to hold a climate conference, it tends to go against the urgency of reducing CO2 emissions."

And you've got me there, good and proper. I can't think of a response to that!

The Chronicles of a Fashionista in PDX said...

Tom - Even though this blog is about global warming, it doesn't hurt to cut back on certain expenditure, considering the global crisis of overpopulation of third world countries and over consumption by highly developed countries, such as our beloved America...

and there is such a thing as alternative energy if we can just keep pushing for solar panels and windmills.

Ultimately, everything, such as, global warming, overpopulation, lack of resources, are all in relation to one another.

just saying...

Tom said...

Fashonista -

You'll have to be more specific about which expenditures we should cut back on. I'm pretty good at finding places where I'm wasting money and eliminating them... for example, I switched to compact flourescents due to the energy savings.

I'm not sure how my cutting back will help anyone in the third world. If anything, it will hurt them, by making the world a poorer place... and if the world is a poorer place, that means that the money used to help others will be that much more dear.

Overpopulation seems to not be much of a problem. World population should stabilize at less than 10 billion by 2050. Prosperity tends to reduce family sizes and therefore world population... although it takes a few generations to catch up.

There are two problems with solar and wind. The first is that they are not reliable enough to be considered baseload power. To a good first approximation, electrical power can't be stored. It has to be generated the moment it's consumed. If wind and solar power won't cover the demand from the grid, you'll get brownouts and other problems.

The second problem is that solar and wind have environmental problems of their own. To power the US via solar panel, you'd have to cover with panels an area 10,000 square miles big. That's more than 100 times the size of Washington DC. Similarly, wind kills birds, and tends to spoil Ted Kennedy's view.

That being said, I don't mind these projects, provided they can pay for themselves without subsidies. I'd rather go with nuclear power, which could provide baseload power with maybe 25-50 square miles of land. (Read "The Power to Change the World" for an environmentalist argument for nuclear power. Among other thing, it points out that, even counting Chernobyl, less people have died in the entire history of nuclear power then die from coal-based energy every single year.)

Suki said...


Tom also makes me think here, although it's morning in my country and I'm very groggy right now :).

I feel that we can all chip in by leaving the smallest possible material footprint. Smaller families(I'm in India...), less electronics, less knickknacks, and yes - things like going out WALKING instead of letting the treadmill burn all the power. There are some very potent ways in which we can economize on time, emotion and money at the same time - I feel it's just a question of how many have the strength and foresight to do it. I try, and the more I succeed the better my life is. Except for the vehicular pollution that leaves me feeling a bit drained after a walk.

There is definitely something to this global warming theory, and it's getting alarming by the season. At this rate, we're looking at huge crop failures due to unpredictable weather(which have happened over the past two seasons over here), famines, and - er - natural population control. Hopefully that will lead to plant overgrowth, and eventually some natural balance will be restored.

If I'm not making sense, do excuse. I'm not a morning person :P.

Anonymous said...

Tom here... fscking blogger won't let me log in.

Suki >>> Take a look at this picture, which shows the past two and a half years or so of global temperatures... when the temperature didn't rise. (It's been pretty steady since 1998, actually.)

I don't know the details of Indian crop failures, but if they occured in 2007 it's likely they were caused by El Nino.

Crop failures suck, but it's important not to confuse climate and weather.