Topic: Energy and Environment

Warmest Year on Record in the U.S.

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 the book closes on the year 2012, it will go down as the warmest year in the National Climatic Data Center’s  (NCDC) history for the contiguous U.S.—a history that goes back to 1895.

And quite a warm year it was, topping the old record held by 1998 by about 1°F—a sizeable margin of victory. In the chart below (Figure 1), I have plotted the entire 118 year record, including the overall average (solid red line) and the 95% confidence range about that mean (+/- two times the detrended standard deviation; dotted red lines). I have also included the linear trend over the 118 years—a value of 0.13°F/decade.

 

Figure 1. U.S. annual average temperatures, 1895-2012 (data source NCDC, 2012 estimated).
 

Notice that the linear is not a great measure of what has been going on climatologically. There have been several multi-decadal periods when the average U.S. temperature has been generally above (1920s-1930s; mid-1990s-present) or below (1890s-1910s; 1960s-1970s) the linear trend term—an indication that larger-scale (quasi-cyclical?) variability plays a defining role in the character of the temperature history.

The role that anthropogenic “global warming” from the emissions of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels plays is debatable—both in timing and magnitude. Almost certainly its influence is present and detectable in the U.S. annual average temperature record, but beyond that simple statement, not a whole lot more can be added with scientific certainty.

Shown below (Figure 2) is the relationship between mean annual global temperature departures from the long-term average and U.S. temperature anomalies.  Statistically, the correspondence between the two is 35%, which means that there are a lot of other things influencing our temperature.

 

Figure 2. Relationship between global and U.S. annual average temperature anomalies, 1895-2011 (data source: NCDC).
 

 

Further, as I have pointed out, there is little we could do to alter the climate influence of anthropogenic emissions even if we wanted to.  So, probably the best thing to do when planning for the future is to be aware of the more or less capricious nature of our nation’s climate and keep in mind that humans are supplying an ever-growing warming pressure on top of that. The Boys Scouts got at least one thing right.

Green Industrial Policy: Taxes, Subsidies, and Privilege

After lengthy investigations by multiple federal agencies, the United States is going to impose a tax ranging from 45 percent to 70 percent on all imported wind towers from China and Vietnam. Manufacturers in those countries are doing too good a job and it’s harming the U.S. wind tower industry.

These duties come on the heels of similar levies (18–250 percent) imposed on Chinese solar panels.

For anyone who wants to see more “green” energy production, these duties are a direct step backwards. Both the wind and solar industries are heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. If the goal of subsidizing green energy is to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment, then taxing green energy would necessarily serve the opposite goal.

Aside from the general follies of protectionism, this contradiction also exposes the problems inherent in pursuing a policy to promote “green jobs” as a corollary of a broader environmental policy.

Green jobs policy is formed as follows.  First you use subsidies to distort incentives and increase investment in wind and solar power.  This creates green jobs that the market can’t support without those subsidies.  Other countries then do the same, but their manufacturers are better than yours.  So to protect the new green jobs you created, you impose tariffs to prevent green competition from harming the green investments you artificially incentivized.

The result is domestic industries ultimately dependent on government intervention rather than consumer choice.  It’s not a good way to promote jobs or green energy, but it does benefit the specific firms who now get unearned money both from taxpayers through the subsidies and from consumers through higher prices.

A troubling consequence of this paradigm is that the targeted industries develop a culture of rent-seeking.  Matthew Mitchell of the Mercatus Center aptly describes this phenomenon in his paper, “The Pathology of Privilege: The Economic Consequences of Government Favoritism.”  Firms respond to the availability of government favors by devoting time, money, and effort to acquire privilege.  The more they do it, the better they get at it.

Success in the wind and solar industries doesn’t depend on a company’s ability to deliver high-quality products at a competitive price; it depends on the quality of the company’s lawyers and lobbyists. In this way, government intervention has done far more to harm the development and success of domestically produced green energy than has transient Chinese competition.

Current Wisdom: New Research Calls into Question High Rates of Sea Level Rise

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.


In its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that as a result of warming primarily caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, global mean sea level would rise from 1990 through 2100 from 0.18 to 0.59 meters (7 to 23 in.) with perhaps another 0.1 to 0.2 meters (4 to 8 in.) on top of that if the rates of ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica continued to grow linearly (from their 1993-2002 rates).

Some of our colleagues who are of a particularly “concerned” persuasion accused the IPCC of being far too conservative in these estimates; it’s true that the IPCC’s central estimate of 15 inches is hardly alarming.  NASA’s Jim Hansen went as far as to accuse the IPCC and others of “scientific reticence” (Hansen claims that scientists are generally reluctant to announce bad news. Judge that one for yourself.) with regard to sea level rise. For his part, Hansen shares no such reticence, and doesn’t mind telling anyone who asks (and many who don’t) that we should be expecting upwards of 6 meters (236 in.) of sea level rise in a hundred years.  He has even stated that the majority of this could occur by 2100. Clearly, there is a world of difference (and a different world) between the IPCC central estimate of 15 inches and Hansen’s 20 feet.

As if on cue, a bunch of apparently non-“reticent” scientists suddenly emerged, trying to show that the IPCC was wrong and of course, that things are “worse than we thought”.

They developed a technique that, to the non-perseverators in the crowd, seems quite reasonable, a “semi-empirical” method which ties historical sea level rise to the rate of global mean temperature change.  They used this relationship rather than the computer-generated rises in sea level that come out of climate models, which is what backs the IPCC projections. Instead they only used the global temperature change projections from the same climate models, and then coupled those with their semi-empirical relationship between temperature and sea level to make their projections. Such a technique almost invariably yields greater rates of sea level rise, with the upper end of the range of projected values often exceeding 1 meter (39 in.) by the year 2100.

One potential problem is that the empirical relationship between sea level and global temperature may not be valid—even though it seems simple and straightforward.  A new multi-authored study argues cogently that indeed the semi-empiricists have fallen into this simple trap.

CO2 Benefits Outweigh Climate Stressors: Chinese Wheat

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.”

In the vast majority of laboratory and field experiments, the benefits of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations for plants (including food crops) generally outweigh the negative impacts from climate change. And this is even assuming the “dumb farmer scenario” that we recently blogged, in which farmers and agronomists don’t develop new production techniques, technologies, crop varietals, etc., to adapt to change, turning expected losses into gains. There is overwhelming evidence such as the remarkably robust increase that has occurred in the yield of most of the world’s major crops when grown in developing or developed nations. In other words, adding CO2 to the atmosphere may be a win-win situation for the world’s vegetation, but we digress…

Here, we’ll highlight a new study showing that including the fertilization effect of higher CO2 concentrations in a crop model of wheat grown in China turns projections of future climate change-driven reductions in crop yields into CO2-driven yield increases.

The study was conducted by researchers Yujie Liu and Fulu Tao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and will soon be published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. Liu and Tao used a complex crop model to evaluate the changes in wheat production (which accounts from 22% China’s primary food production), in the main wheat cultivation areas in China under three climate change scenarios—global temperature increases of 1°, 2°, and 3°C. They modeled the crop response both with and without considering the fertilization impacts of additional atmospheric CO2 concentrations (which presumably produced the warming) and compared the results. Here is their summary:

There is a high probability of decreasing (increasing) changes in yield and water use efficiency under higher temperature scenarios without (with) consideration of CO2  fertilization effects. Elevated CO2 concentration generally compensates for the negative effects of warming temperatures on production. Moreover, positive effects of elevated CO2 concentration on grain yield increase with warming temperatures. The findings could be critical for climate change-driven agricultural production that ensures global food security.

Findings and conclusions like these are a breath of carbon dioxide-enhanced fresh air in a world of climate gloomsaying.

Reference:

Liu, Y., and F. Tao, 2012. Probabilistic change of wheat productivity and water use in China for global mean temperature changes of 1, 2, and 3°C. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, doi:10.1175/JAMC-D-12-039.1, in press.

A Poor Excuse for Even Poorer Legislation

According to The Hill, yesterday Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) told reporters, “I am going to form a climate change caucus, because people are coming up to me, they really want to get into this. I think Sandy changed a lot of minds.”

Changed a lot of minds about what?   As I have pointed out, the link between “superstorm” Sandy and anthropogenic climate change is weak, and weaker still is our understanding of whether climate change strengthened or weakened Sandy. But regardless of whether or not human greenhouse gas emissions impacted Sandy in some detectable way, it is certain that Congressional attempts to drive down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will have absolutely zero detectable impact of such storm systems, and any other type of extreme weather you can think of.

Why? Because, as I have shown, under business-as-usual scenarios, the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are only expected to be responsible for maybe 7% of the total global human greenhouse effect impact over the course of this century.  Detecting a human impact on extreme weather systems is already hard enough (due to human-signal to natural-noise ratio problems), and detecting only 7% of it is impossible (and 7% is the best case scenario if all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions forever ceased starting tomorrow, which, I can assure you, will not be the case).

Sandy is a poor excuse to pursue even poorer legislation.

The Latest Greenland Kerfluffle: If Their Science Can’t Be Refuted, Smear ‘Em

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.”

About a year and a half ago, we were co-authors (along with Dr. Oliver Frauenfeld from Texas A&M University) on a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in which we presented a nearly 225-year reconstruction of surface snow melt across Greenland (Figure 1).

Our reconstruction was based on long-term temperature records from the southern Greenland coast along with historic indicators of the atmospheric circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean. We found that in addition to the period since about the year 2000, there was an extended (multi-decadal) period in the early portion of the 20th century where the amount of surface snowmelt was elevated above the long-term average.  We concluded from this that since there did not appear to be a large increase in the rate of global sea level rise during the early 20th century period of elevated ice melt—a melt driven primarily by warmer than normal temperatures—that Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise during the current period of high temperatures was likely to remain relatively “modest,” at least for the next few decades.

Figure 1. Reconstructed history of the total ice melt extent index over Greenland, 1784–2009. Observed values of the ice melt index (blue solid circles), reconstructed values of the ice melt index (gray open circles), the 10 year trailing moving average through the reconstructed and fitted values (thick red line), and the 95% upper and lower confidence bounds (thin gray lines) (from Frauenfeld et al., 2011).

Neither our methods, nor or findings were overly controversial—or so we thought.

Shortly after our paper was published, one of the reviewers of our paper, a noted snow/ice researcher who has spent a lot of time studying Greenland, Dr. Jason Box, came forwarded and denounced our work. On his blog (in posts he has subsequently removed), he attacked our work both from a scientific standpoint as well as deriding it with a few ad hominems (for example “Examining the 2nd [Knappenberger] and 3rd [Michaels] authors’ credentials, a climate change denialist pattern emerges”).

On both accounts we felt he was wrong (of course) and offered a rebuttal.

But perhaps the strongest argument that our results were scientifically sound comes from an ironic source—the results of new research findings from Jason Box himself!

These new findings from Box, although not yet fully available, have been incorporated into another research project that has recently been published (Gregory et al., 2012) and thus we can get a sneak peek at them.

The solid black line in Figure 2 (below) shows Box’s reconstruction of the sea level rise contribution from Greenland back into since the mid-1800s.

Figure 2. Various estimates of the time series of the Greenland ice-sheet mass contribution to global-mean sea-level rise. The reconstructions are plotted as ten-year running time-means of the sea-level equivalent of the rate of change of mass of the Greenland ice-sheet with respect to the mean of 1961–1990. The solid black line, labeled “B” is the net mass balance, including both surface mass balance and ice discharge from Jason Box. The horizontal dotted line indicates zero. The vertical lines indicate the years in which major volcanic eruptions occurred (from Gregory et al., 2012).

Notice the strong resemblance of Box’s reconstruction of the sea level contribution from Greenland with our reconstruction of the surface snow melt across Greenland.  The snow melt/sea level contribution is currently very high, was relatively low in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, was high from the mid-1920s through the late 1960s, and was lower in the 1800s.

Considering that there are other factors besides snowmelt (like snow accumulation and calving glaciers) that contribute to Greenland’s net contributions to sea level rise, the two curves are remarkably similar. This is a strong indication that whatever is driving snowmelt (regional temperature) is also driving the net sea level contribution.

All of which we wrote in our paper:

This record of ice melt indicates that the melt extent observed since the late 1990s is among the highest likely to have occurred since the late 18th century, although recent values are not statistically different from those common during the period 1923–1961, a period when summer temperatures along the southern coast of Greenland were similarly high as those experienced in recent years. Our reconstruction indicates that if the current trend toward increasing melt extent continues, total melt across the Greenland ice sheet will exceed historic values of the past two and a quarter centuries

…The forces acting in concert with ice melt across Greenland to produce higher global sea levels currently, should also have been acting during the extended high‐melt conditions from the mid‐1920s to the early 1960s.

And we also added this concerning the significance of Greenland’s contribution to the total global sea level rise:

[T]here is no indication that the increased contribution from the Greenland melt in the early to mid 20th century, a roughly 40 year interval when average annual melt was more or less equivalent to the average of the most recent 10 years (2000–2009), resulted in a rate of global sea level rise that exceeded ~mm/yr.  This suggests that Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise, even during multidecadal conditions as warm as during the past several years, is relatively modest.

Figure 3 (anther figure from the new paper from Gregory et al., 2012) shows the breakdown of the factors contributing to the global rise in sea level of the past century and a half.  Greenland’s contribution (based on Box’s reconstruction) is the pale green line (labeled “Greenland-B” in the legend). I think it is pretty fair to characterize this as “modest.”

Figure 3. Observational (black) and a reconstructed (red) time series of global mean sea-level rise (thick lines, with 5–95% observational uncertainty shaded), also showing the contributions to the latter (thin lines), identified by the time series initials in the key (from Gregory et al., 2012).

Why was such a big deal was made about our research results and “denialist” credentials when subsequent results, made by the very person who went ad hominem, completely replicate our findings?

References:

Box, J. E., Greenland ice sheet mass balance reconstruction. Part III: Marine ice loss and total mass balance (1840–2010). Journal of Climate, submitted (as cited by Gregory et al., 2012).

Frauenfeld, O.W., P.C. Knappenberger, and P.J. Michaels, 2011. A reconstruction of annual Greenland ice melt extent, 1785-2009. Journal of Geophysical Research, 116, D08104, doi: 10.1029/2010JD014918.

Gregory, J., et al., 2012. Twentieth-century global-mean sea-level rise: is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Journal of Climate, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00319.1, in press.

Suffer the Little Children

But maybe think twice before taking them as authorities on complex environmental and economic matters.

The used lunch trays Emily Fox took home about four years ago from the loading dock outside her elementary school were gross, some still plastered with ketchup. Emily stacked the trays in piles of 10. She wanted to know just how many polystyrene lunch trays Piney Branch Elementary School students went through in a day.  “Three hundred and twenty-five,” said Emily, now 12…

On Friday, the Hermosa Beach City School District in Southern California started replacing foam trays with recycled paper trays once a week, thanks in part to the advocacy of Max Riley, a fourth-grader at Hermosa Valley School, and his sister Reece, a second-grader.

“No Foam Friday” will run through the end of the school year, and the siblings say they’re pushing for permanent change.

Max said he worries about the health repercussions of littering Earth with foam.