Topic: Energy and Environment

A Few Notes on Climate Change

As the Copenhagen Climate Conference is taking place, it is appropriate to clarify once again what is more or less accurately known about the climate of our planet and about climate change.

Obviously, a brief post can not substitute for detailed studies of professionals in a variety of scientific disciplines – climatology, atmospheric physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and economics. However, a short post can summarize basic theses on the main trends in climate evolution, on its forecasts, and on its actual and projected effects.

1. The Earth’s climate is constantly changing. The climate was changing in the past, is changing now and, obviously, will be changing in the future – as long as our planet exists.

2. Climatic changes are largely cyclical in nature. There are various time horizons of climatic cycles – from the annual cycle known to everyone to cycles of 65-70 years, of 1,300 years, or of 100,000 years (the so called Milankovitch cycles).

3. There is no fundamental disagreement among scientists, public figures and governments about the fact that the climate is  changing. There is a broad consensus that climate changes occur constantly. The myth, created by climate alarmists, that their opponents deny climate change is sheer propaganda.

4. Current debate among climatologists, economists and public figures is not about the fact of climate change, but about other issues. In particular, disagreements exist on:
- Comparative levels of modern day temperatures (relative to the historically observed),
- The direction of climate change depending on the length of record,
- The extent of climate change,
- The rate of climate change,
- Causes of climate change,
- Forecasts of climate change,
- Consequences of climate change,
- The optimal strategy for human beings to respond to climate change.

5. Unbiased answers to many of these issues are critically dependent on a chosen time horizon – whether it is 10 years, or 30 years, or 70 years, or 1000 years, or 10,000 years, or hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Depending on the time horizon, the answers to many of these questions may be different, even opposite.

6. The current level of global temperature in historical perspective is not unique. The average temperature of the Earth is now estimated at about 14.5 degrees Celsius. In our planet’s history there have been few periods when the Earth’s temperature was lower than the current – in the early Permian period, in the Oligocene, and during periodic glaciations in the Pleistocene. For most of the time during the last half billion years, the air temperature at the Earth’s surface greatly exceeded the current one, and for about half of this period it was approximately 25°C, or 10°C higher than the current temperature. Regular glaciations of cold periods during the Pleistocene era lasted for approximately 90,000 years, with a low temperature of approximately 5°C below that of the present, alternated by warm interglacial periods (for 4,000-6,000 years) with temperatures of 1-3°C higher than at present. Approximately 11,000 years ago the last significant increase in temperature began (of approximately 5°C), during which time a huge glacier, that covered a considerable part of Eurasia and America, had melted. Climate warming has played a key role in humanity’s acquisition of the secrets of agriculture and in its transition to civilization. Over the past 11,000 years there were at least five distinct warm periods, the so-called “climatic optima” when the temperature of the planet was at 1-3°C higher than at present.

7. The focus of climate change depends critically on the choice of time horizon. In the past 11 years (1998-2009 years) global temperature was flat. Before that, in the preceding 20 years (1979-1998 years) it increased by about 0.3°C. Before that, during the preceding 36 years (1940-1976 years) the temperature fell by about 0.1°C. Before that, for the preceding two centuries (1740 – 1940 years), the overall trend in global temperature was mainly neutral – with periodic warming, followed by cooling, and then again warming. Over the past three centuries (from the turn of 18th century), the temperature in the northern hemisphere has increased by approximately 1.3°C, from the trough of the so-called “Little Ice Age” (LIA) during the years 1500-1740 years, followed by the contemporary climatic optimum (CCO), which started around 1980. During the three centuries preceding the LIA, the temperature in the northern hemisphere was falling compared to the level it was during the medieval climatic optimum (MCO) in the 8th – 13th centuries. Depending on the chosen time frame the long-term temperature trend has a different trajectory. For periods of the last 2,000 years, the last 4,000 years, and the last 8,000 years, the trend was negative. For periods of the past 1,300 years, the last 5,000 years, and the last 9,000 years it was positive.

8. The rate of contemporary climate change is much more modest in comparison with the rate of climatic changes observed earlier in the history of the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes the increase in the global temperature by 0.76°C over the last century (1906-2005 years) as extraordinary. There is reason to suspect this temperature value is somewhat overstated. However, the main point is that previous rises in temperature were greater than those in the modern era. Comparable data demonstrate that the increase in temperature, for example, in Central England in the 18th century (by 0.97°C) was more significant than in the 20th (by 0.90°C). The climatic changes in Central Greenland over the past 50,000 years show that there were at least a dozen periods during which the regional temperature increased by 10-13°C. Given the correlation between changes in temperature at high latitudes and globally, those shifts in temperature regime in Greenland meant a rise in global temperature by 4-6°C. Such a rate was approximately 5-7 times faster than the actual (and, perhaps, slightly exaggerated) temperature increase in the 20th century.

9. The rate of current climate change (the speed of modern warming) by historical standards is not unique. According to IPCC data, the rate of temperature increase over the past 50 years was 0.13°C per decade. According to comparable data, obtained through instrumental measurements, a higher rate of temperature increase was observed at least three times: in the late 17th century – early 18th century; in the second half of the 18th century; and in the late 19th century – early 20th century. The centennial rate of warming in the 20th century is slower than the warming in the 18th century that was instrumentally recorded and slower than the warming in at least 13 cases over the past 50,000 years that were measured by palaeoclimatic methods.

10. Among the causes of climate change in the pre-industrial era there were hardly any anthropogenic factors – due to modest population size and mankind’s limited economic activities. But the range of climatic fluctuations and their rate and peak values in the pre-industrial era exceeded the parameters of climate change recorded in the industrial period.

11. During the industrial age (since the beginning of the 19th century) climate change is believed to be under the impact of both groups of factors – of natural and of anthropogenic character. Since the rate of climate change in the industrial age is so far noticeably smaller than at some time in the pre-industrial age, there is no basis for the assertion that anthropogenic factors had already become as significant as natural factors, even less for the assertion that they overwhelm natural factors.

12. Factors of anthropogenic climate change are rather diverse and can not be confined to carbon dioxide only. Mankind impacts local, regional and global climate by constructing buildings and structures, heating houses, industrial and public premises, by logging and planting forests, plowing arable land, damming rivers, draining and irrigating lands, leveling and paving territories, conducting industry, issuing aerosols, etc.

13. There is no consensus in the scientific community on the role of carbon dioxide in climate change. Some scientists believe that it is crucial, others believe that it is secondary to other factors. There are also serious disagreements on the nature and direction of possible causality between concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and temperature: some researchers believe the former causes temperature to rise, others argue the opposite – that fluctuations in temperature cause changes in carbon dioxide concentration.

14. Unlike carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) is harmless to humans; in contrast to aerosol, a harmful and dangerous substance, carbon dioxide does not pollute the environment. It has neither a color, nor a taste, nor a smell. Therefore, popularly used photos and videos showing factory chimney stacks emitting smoke and cars emitting exhaust to illustrate carbon dioxide are just misleading – CO2 is invisible; what is visible in those images are pollutants. It should also be noted that the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has a positive impact on the productivity of plants, including agricultural crops.

15. The relationship of the concentration of carbon dioxide to climate change remains a subject of intense scientific debate. True, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past two centuries increased from 280 parts per million of air particles in the early 19th century to 388 particles in 2009. It is also true that the global temperature in that period rose by about 0.8°C. But whether these two factors are connected is unclear. The dynamics of CO2 concentration did not correlate well with the expected changes in temperature. The significant and rapid increases in global temperature during the interglacial periods of the Pleistocene, during the Medieval Climatic Optima, in the 18th century, were not preceded by an increase in carbon dioxide concentration. In the industrial age, an increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was not always accompanied by a rise in global temperature. In 1944-1976 CO2 concentration increased by 24 units – from 308 to 332 particles, but the global temperature fell 0.1°C. In 1998-2009 CO2 concentration increased by 21 units – from 367 to 388 particles, but the global temperature trend remained flat. In the first half of the 1940’s the decline in the concentration of carbon dioxide by 3 units (as a result of the massive destruction caused by World War II) did not prevent the global temperature to rise by 0.1°C.

16. So far global climate models demonstrate their limited effectiveness. The complex nature of the climate system is not reflected adequately enough in the global climate models whose use has recently spread around the world. The projections developed on their basis in the late 1990s through the early 2000s predicted the global temperature to rise by 1.4-5.8°C till the end of the 21st century with a 0.2-0.4°C increase already in the first decade. In reality during 1998-2009 the temperature was flat at best.

17. Forecasts of global climate change made at the beginning of this decade by Russian scientists (from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the Voejkov Main Geophysical Observatory) predicted a fall in the global temperature by 0.6°C by 2025-2030 in comparison with a temperature peak reached at the end of the 20th century. So far the actual temperature for the last decade has not risen.

18. Implications of climate change for human beings differ greatly depending on their direction, size and rate. An increase in temperature leads as a rule to a softer and moister climate, while a decline in temperature leads to a harder and drier climate. It was a climatic optimum in the Holocene period with temperatures 1-3°C higher than today that greatly contributed to the birth of civilization. Conditions for people’s life and economic activities in warmer climates are usually more favorable than in colder environments. In warmer climates there is usually more precipitation than in drier areas, the cost of heating and volume of food required to sustain human life is lower, while vegetation and navigation periods are longer, and crops’ yields are higher.

19. Methods “to combat global warming” by reducing carbon dioxide emissions suggested by climate alarmists are scientifically unfounded in the absence of extraordinary or unusual changes in climate during the modern era. Such measures, if adopted, are especially dangerous for mid- and lower income countries. Those measures would effectively cut those countries off the path to prosperity and hinder their ability to close the gap with more developed nations.

20. The impact of all anthropogenic factors (not only CO2) on climate is unclear when compared with factors of nature. Therefore, the most effective strategy for humanity in responding to different types of climate change is adaptation. That approach is exactly the way that humans have reacted to the larger-scale climatic changes in the past, even though they were less prepared then for such changes. Now mankind has greater resources to adapt to lesser climate fluctuations and it is better equipped for them scientifically, technically and psychologically. The adaptation of humanity to climate changes is incomparably less costly than other options being proposed and imposed by climate alarmists. Human society has already adopted to climate change and will continue to do so as long as economy and society are vibrant and free.

Copenhagen: Let the Games Begin!

25,000 bureaucrats, factota, hangers on, and representatives of various environmental organizations have just converged on Copenhagen for the UN’s latest “Conference of the Parties (COP) to its infamous 1992 climate treaty. Expect a lot of heat, not much light, and a punt right into our next election.

President Obama says that the US will agree to a “politically binding” reduction of our emissions of carbon dioxide to a mere 17% of 2005 levels by 2050. This will allow the average American the carbon dioxide emission of the average citizen in 1867. Obama’s pronouncement has stepped all over the toes of the US Senate, which really doesn’t want to vote on similar legislation this election year. Jim Webb, a democrat heretofore very loyal to the President recently wrote Obama a very tersely worded note reminding him that the power to commit the nation to such a regulation lies with the Senate, not with the Commander-in-Chief.

The UN’s own climate models show that even if every nation that has obligations under the failed Kyoto Protocol (which is supposed to be replaced by the Copenhagen Protocol) did what Obama wants, that only 7% of prospective warming would be prevented by 2100. The world’s largest emitter—China—was exempt then, and won’t agree to these reductions now.

Instead they will agree to reduce “carbon intensity”—the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit GDP—by 20% per decade. This is nothing but business as usual for a developing or robust economy. In fact, when President George W. Bush said that was our global warming policy, he was roundly booed. The Chinese announcement—already telegraphed, is being greeted with unmitigated praise by the same environmentalists who beat on Bush for the exact same policy. India has just announced that there is no way that they will agree to any emission reductions unless we pay them lotsa money. Obama thinks that’s a good idea, too. Polling data, anyone?

Since there’s no way that India and China will agree to large reductions, the real result of Copenhagen is that the climate can will be kicked down the road to the next COP, which begins on November 8, 2010, right down the road in Mexico City. That’s six days after our Congressional election, guaranteeing that cap-and-tax will be on the voters’ minds when they close the curtain on the current Congress.

Have the Greens Failed?

Today’s question at “Politico Arena”:

“Have the greens failed?”

My response:

If the greens have failed, it’s not for lack of trying.  For years now, in everything from pre-school programs to “educational” ads aimed at adults, they’ve been “greenwashing” our brains.  In September the Wall Street Journal reported that the EPA was focusing on children:  ”Partnering with the Parent Teacher Organization, the agency earlier this month launched a cross-country tour of 6,000 schools to teach students about climate change and energy efficiency.”

Yet for all that effort, the public isn’t buying.  As Politico notes this morning:  ”The Pew Research Center found that by last January, global warming ’ranked at the bottom of the public’s list of policy priorities for the president and Congress this year.‘ “  And “Independent voters and Republicans ranked it last on a list of 20 priorities, while Democrats ranked it 16th.”  Meanwhile, “other polling suggests Americans are growing more skeptical of the science behind climate change, with those who blame human activity for global warming – 36 percent – falling 11 percentage points this year, according to Pew.”  And that was before “Climategate” came to light.

At bottom, the greens face three basic problems. First, by no means is the science of global warming “settled” – if anything, the fraud Climategate surfaced has settled that question. Second, even if global warming were a settled science, the contribution of human activity is anything but certain. And finally, most important, even if the answers to those two questions were clear, the costs – or benefits – of global warming are unknown, but the costs of the proposals promoted by the greens are astronomical.

So how do they respond to all of this? Politico cites Greenpeace executive director Phil Radford: “ ‘Obama’s problem is not his position on the climate issue but, rather, his will,’ says Radford. ’The question is how much the president will lead.’ Americans have ‘overlearned’ the lessons of Kyoto, where President Bill Clinton agreed to a treaty that he never submitted for ratification because it faced near-unanimous rejection in the Senate, Radford said. ’They’re using that as a reason to hide behind Congress instead of to lead Congress.’”

There you have it. It’s all a matter of will – indeed, of belief. The president needs simply to will this through, the people (and Congress) be damned. We, the anointed, know what’s right, what needs to be done. Is it any wonder that the greens are failing, at least where the people can still be heard?

Stifling Innovation by Subsidizing It

In 2007, the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program was created in the Department of Energy to support the development of advanced (i.e., “green”) technology vehicles. Last year Congress appropriated $7.5 billion to support a maximum of $25 billion in loans. So far, the subsidies have been dished out to Ford ($5.9 billion), Nissan ($1.6 billion), Tesla Motors ($465 million), and Fisker Automotive ($528 million).

Darryl Siry, a former official at Tesla, has written a piece for Wired that illuminates a fundamental problem with the government trying to pick winners and losers in the marketplace:

To the recipients the support is a vital and welcome boost. But this massive government intervention in private capital markets may have the unintended consequence of stifling innovation by reducing the flow of private capital into ventures that are not anointed by the DOE.

Private investors, such as venture capitalists, make investments based on perceived risk and expected financial returns. Companies with government backing are more attractive to investors because government support “amounts to free leverage for the venture capitalist’s bet” given that “the upside is multiplied and the downside remains the same since the most the equity investor can lose is the original investment.”

According to Siry:

The proposition is so irresistible that any reasonable person would prefer to back a company that has received a DOE loan or grant than a company that has not. It is this distortion of the market for private capital that will have a stifling effect on innovation, as private capital chases fewer deals and companies that do not have government backing have a harder time attracting private capital. This doesn’t mean deals won’t get done outside of the energy department’s umbrella, but it means fewer deals will be done and at worse terms.

Siry concludes that a solution to avoiding these market distortions would be to “cast the net more broadly” by giving subsidies to more companies. That’s where I part ways with his analysis. The real solution is to get the Department of Energy out of the subsidy business – and energy markets – altogether.

This Won’t Put Al Gore in the Christmas Spirit

This has not been a good week for the global warming alarmists. They’ve been caught with their pants down on the Climate-gate email scandal, and they are terrorized by my colleague Pat Michaels. So this is the time to add some insult to injury with a very amusing video.

On the topic of amusing videos, here’s one on health care put together by Ladies4Liberty, featuring Cato’s Nena Bartlett.

“Climategate” and Government

It was “Open Mic” this past weekend at Politico Arena:

My post:
Brad Smith is to be commended for encouraging Politico Arena contributors to comment on the emerging “Climategate” scandal.  And it is noteworthy that both he and Walter Russell Mead, the first to respond to Brad’s invitation, have taken a “let’s-see-the-evidence” posture toward the matter, discounting neither the global warming thesis nor the evidence that there may be less to the thesis than its promoters have been saying.

Yet to listen to how the promoters have discounted their critics over the years, one would imagine that the science on the matter were settled.  In fact, one hears often enough that the science is settled to believe that many of them believe it – until a story like this breaks.  Then we see the scramble to shore up their belief system.  It’s an old story, documented years ago by Thomas Kuhn in his provocative volume, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Fortunately, we haven’t yet reached the stage of the Lysenko scandal, which set Soviet genetics back several decades.  But we delude ourselves if we believe that the politicization of science is not inherent in government entanglement as such.  Since that entanglement of government and science is not likely to end soon, the antidote is transparency.  Climategate may be just the spur we need to open the books on global warming, especially given the draconian remedies its promoters are prescribing.

On What Planet Is Lindsey Graham a Free-Trader?

I’ve just started reading a new article by economists at the World Bank and the Peterson Insititute. The gist of the paper is that greenhouse gas emission targets will have little effect on “carbon leakage”, the apparently-largely-theoretical phenomenon whereby carbon-intensive industries move to less regulated jurisdictions in response to stringent emissions regulations in their original home.  So we can strike that off our list of worries.

The authors do reach the conclusion, though, that output of energy-intensive products will decline in response to emissions caps and the political temptation for “carbon tariffs” will be strong (see here why that is a bad idea). Basing the carbon tariffs on the carbon content of imports–as opposed to, say, the carbon content of domestic production displaced– will lead to significant falls in developing country exports. Music to protectionists’ ears, perhaps, but not exactly a recipe for international cooperation or global prosperity.

I’m still digesting the substance of the paper, but I was struck by what I think is a pretty large oversight/mischaracterization in the second paragraph.  The authors refer to the “internationally-minded” Sen. John Kerry (true in the serves-on-the-foreign-relations-committee-and-speaks-French sense, I guess) and the “free-trade oriented” Senator Lindsey Graham (R, SC).

Huh? A cursory glance at Senator Graham’s record indicates that in no serious sense could he be deemed “free-trade oriented.” Senator Graham has voted to lower trade barriers less than half (43 percent) of the time and has taken only 20 percent of opportunities to cut subsidies. That puts him in the “interventionist/internationalist” camp. Maybe the authors didn’t know about the Center for Trade Policy Studies’ “Free Trade, Free Markets: Rating Congress” tool, but surely Senator Graham’s co-sponsorship of the notorious Schumer-Graham legislation, among other transgressions, should have tipped them off.