Tag: Global Science Report

A Closer Look at the Government’s Determination of the Social Costs of Carbon

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

 

We and our apparently few friends tend to shriek with horror when governments try to centrally plan economies because, of course, planning places arbitrary prices on things and dictates how much of what will be made during the next five years.  But we should be equally horrified when government tries to invent costs and then impose them upon us.

Such is the case with the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), a completely mis-named concept which purports to accurately estimate damages associated with global warming caused by pernicious fossil fuel-fired economic activity.

First of all, “carbon” has nothing to do with global warming. In its purest crystalline form, a gram will set you back about $50,000—a.k.a. a 5-carat diamond. Other allotropes include graphite and buckyballs–geodesic-dome like molecules composed of 60 carbon atoms. Combusted (oxidized) carbon-containing compounds are the materials that produce carbon dioxide (CO2). Uncombusted methane (CH4) along with carbon dioxide can slightly enhance the earth’s natural greenhouse effect. 

Further, there are two sides to the industrial coin, not just negativity (i.e., social costs). It’s obvious that the combustion of carbon-containing compounds has driven a lot of civilization—a byproduct is the fact that you aren’t dead yet (life expectancy, pre-industrial revolution in Europe was around 35) and the fact that—in real dollars—you’re about ten times richer than your great-grandparents were.

So, what the government (e.g., the EPA) is really talking about is “The One-Tailed Effect of Oxidizing Carbon-Containing Compounds,” acronymed OTEOCCC, which just isn’t as catchy as SCC, which sounds like a Division I Football conference.

Currently, there are several proposed legislative amendments floating around Congress that are aimed to limit how the EPA can use the government’s assessment of the social costs of carbon.

Limiting the EPA’s use of the SCC in considering regulations would be a wise move since the government’s SCC calculations are incomplete, subjective, and seriously lagging the science of climate change.

The IPCC AR5 Is in Real Trouble

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is in the midst of finishing its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on the topic. Based on a series of content leaks, it seems as if the AR5 has so much internal inconsistency that releasing it in its current form will be a major fiasco.

The  central issue of climate change science is the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS)—that is, how much the earth’s average surface temperature will increase as a result of a doubling the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. New and mutually consistent re-assessments of this important parameter are appearing in the scientific literature faster than the slow and arduous IPCC assessment process can digest them (presuming it even wants to—given that they are making the current AR5 look pretty bad).

Further, even if the IPCC is able to do an adequate job of assimilating this evolving and quite convincing science, the vast majority of the rest of the IPCC’s report will also have to be changed as it is highly dependent on the magnitude of the climate sensitivity. 

By now, though, it’s too late in the game (the final report is due out in early  2014)—the  cows have all left the IPCC’s barn on these subjects and it’s too late to round them all up and rebrand them.

Hot Enough For You?

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Is it hot enough for you?

You don’t know, and neither do global warming policy wonks.

Climatologically speaking, temperatures peak in the second half of July, especially here in the East. Thanks to this, global warming horror stories also max out, followed by the usual pleadings for this or that regulation of dreaded carbon dioxide. The latest greatest rage in a direct tax on carbon dioxide emissions, which will no doubt be trotted out in this week’s eastern heat.

But how hot is it? We know what the thermometer reads, but how does that compare to past thermometer readings?

It turns out there are several factors that confound temperature histories—some obvious, some subtle, and no doubt an unknown number of things that are simply missed.

An obvious one is that bricks, buildings and pavement increasingly “urbanize” the climate, retaining the heat built up during the day and impeding cross ventilation from the local wind regime. To compensate, most long-term temperature histories adjust urban temperatures in comparison to neighboring stations.

A more subtle one is that a systematic change in the time of day in which the high and low temperatures are read (and reset) is also important. As an example, consider a station in which the observer records the previous 24-hour high and low temperatures at 5pm, local time. That’s near the time of day, in the summer, when temperatures are around their daily high. If the day is really hot, say, 100° or so, the temperature at 5:01 is likely to be the same, meaning there are two very hot days recorded when there may have only been one if temperatures were reset at midnight.

There are plenty of other adjustments made to local temperature histories such as accounting for movement of weather stations, changes to the local environment, and adjustments for technological changes, such as switching from mercury-in-glass to electronic thermometers.

And there are some factors that are completely ignored and unaccounted for, having to do with economic factors. Near-neighbor comparisons aren’t going to do a bit of good if an entire country (say, Chad) is too poor to spend anything maintaining weather stations. The fact is that as they “weather,” unattended stations get darker, which means that the temperature gets hotter.

Hurricane Bluster

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

When it comes down to scaring people into accepting onerous reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, it’s always a good idea to trot out the specter of increased hurricanes, despite the lack of backing for this in the science literature.

“Bluster” isn’t the name of an Atlantic hurricane (although it would be a good one*), but rather our description of the stories about new research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology projecting an increase in the frequency and magnitude of hurricanes as a result of anthropogenic climate change.

Publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, M.I.T.’s Kerry Emanuel projects a rather large increase in the global frequency of tropical cyclones as well as their intensity over the course of the 21st century.

Emanuel is the first to admit that the changes he found were largely of a different character to those in the generally accepted literature, which projects little change in the frequency of tropical systems (with perhaps even a slight decline) and only a slight increase in the future intensity.

The difference between Emanuel’s results and those from the bulk of other studies arises primarily for two reasons; 1) the future emissions scenario used to drive the global climate models; and, 2) the method of downscaling coarse climate model output to the finer scale necessary to model tropical cyclones.

When it comes to emission scenarios, Emanuel chooses to use the most extreme scenario, which more than triples the effective atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by the end of the century, while most other studies have used a more modest scenario which leads only to about a doubling. With new technologies opening up vast abundances of lower CO2-emitting natural gas available for power generation, the extreme emissions scenario used by Emanuel seems unlikely.

Great News from Greenland

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

I recently returned from a trip to Greenland’s Jokabshavn Glacier, which discharges more ice than any other in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Our route of flight from Reykjavik traversed the ice cap from about fifty miles north of Angmassalik to the airport at Ilulissat, on Disko Bay, about one-third of the way up Greenland’s west coast. In southeastern Greenland, we flew very close to the country’s second-highest peak, Mt. Forel (11,099 feet), and in the near future I will upload a image of a nearby mountain approximately 8,000 feet high completely covered by the ice cap.

It is obvious from the air that there is very little movement over the deepest regions of the ice, and the drift patterns in the lee of some of the submerged peaks are strongly suggestive of at least some regional accumulation. There is virtually no evidence for summer melt in the southeast, while the southwest portion of the ice cap is known to melt and refreeze at the surface on an annual cycle—I saw considerable evidence for multi-year, but small, lakes in that region.

In preparation, I read just about everything I could get my hands on, including a recent very remarkable paper by Dorthe Dahl-Jenson and about 70 coauthors. Dahl-Jensen heads up the Center for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen. Dahl-Jenson’s team drilled to the bottom of the ice in northwestern Greenland, providing us with the first climate history of Greenland that includes the warmest period in the last interglacial period, from about 128,000 to 122,000 years ago, known as the Eemian. That was embedded in the Sangamon Interglacial, which ran from approximately 135,000 to 95,000 years ago. 

(For perspective, the last (Wisconsin) glaciation started then and lasted to (nominally) 10,800 years ago—that last date being about a blink of a geologist’s eye ago. Homo sapiens appeared in the ice age, and evidence is that proto-civilization developed while the hemisphere was glaciated.)

Climate vs. Climate Change

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding in the difference between climate and climate change.

This is on very public display in the president’s recently unveiled Climate Action Plan, which details a series of executive actions designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to control the future course of the climate.

In justifying the need for these actions, and why he doesn’t have time to wait for Congress to act, the president points to numerous recent examples of extreme weather disasters while linking weather extremes to climate change brought about by anthropogenic greenhouse gases emissions.

In doing so, he goes awry of the best science.

Here’s why.

Climate Models Veer Off Course

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

A new paper shows that climate models are getting worse at replicating a collection of known climate changes as incentivized efforts to improve them have them universally veering off course.

Anyone who is familiar with John Allison’s book The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure knows that incentives can drive otherwise “independent” decisions in a common direction, with sometimes disastrous results. Allison documents how a collection of government incentives (intentionally and unintentionally) drove decisions in the wider financial markets towards overinvesting in residential real estate. The resulting massive misallocation of funds and ultimate bubble burst sent us into the Great Recession, from which we have yet to recover.

Obviously, that was not the intended outcome of the federal policies, but as Allison writes “Intentions that are called ‘good’ often do not produce favorable outcomes.” Allison argues that a free market, one that is free from centralized incentives, and one in which truly independent decisions are being made, is less susceptible to a universal failure and that when failures do occur, they are not as severe and they are more quickly recovered from. Had the financial markets been operating without federal regulations and incentives, not only would the Great Recession not have occurred (or would have been minor), but that our country would be in a much healthier financial state with an overall higher standard of living for everyone.

Not only can (and do) targeted incentives lead financial markets astray, they also operate the same way in the field of science.

In either case, the ultimate effect is to steer the outcome away from its most efficient pathway and instead send it veering towards dangerous territory that is marked by a decline in our overall well-being.

This is nowhere more evident than in the field of climate science, as a new paper by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Kyle Swanson clearly illuminates.

In his work “Emerging selection bias in large climate change simulations,” Swanson finds that the new generation of climate models has become worse at matching recent climate change than the generation of models which they supplant.