Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Shock from NYT: Missing Its Spots: 'Sun may be on verge of falling into an extended slumber' could cause 'extended chilly period'‏

Is the NYT setting the stage to blame the Sun? Is NYT joining man-made climate skeptics? The bottom may be falling out of CO2 hysteria! A fair and balanced article below!

The Sun is still blank (mostly). Ever since Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, a German astronomer, first noted in 1843 that sunspots burgeon and wane over a roughly 11-year cycle, scientists have carefully watched the Sun’s activity. In the latest lull, the Sun should have reached its calmest, least pockmarked state last fall. Indeed, last year marked the blankest year of the Sun in the last half-century — 266 days with not a single sunspot visible from Earth. Then, in the first four months of 2009, the Sun became even more blank, the pace of sunspots slowing more. “It’s been as dead as a doornail,” David Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said a couple of months ago.

The Sun perked up in June and July, with a sizeable clump of 20 sunspots earlier this month. Now it is blank again, consistent with expectations that this solar cycle will be smaller and calmer, and the maximum of activity, expected to arrive in May 2013 will not be all that maximum. For operators of satellites and power grids, that is good news. The same roiling magnetic fields that generate sunspot blotches also accelerate a devastating rain of particles that can overload and wreck electronic equipment in orbit or on Earth.

A panel of 12 scientists assembled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now predicts that the May 2013 peak will average 90 sunspots during that month. That would make it the weakest solar maximum since 1928, which peaked at 78 sunspots. During an average solar maximum, the Sun is covered with an average of 120 sunspots. But the panel’s consensus “was not a unanimous decision,” said Douglas A. Biesecker, chairman of the panel. One member still believed the cycle would roar to life while others thought the maximum would peter out at only 70.

Among some global warming skeptics, there is speculation that the Sun may be on the verge of falling into an extended slumber similar to the so-called Maunder Minimum, several sunspot-scarce decades during the 17th and 18th centuries that coincided with an extended chilly period.

Most solar physicists do not think anything that odd is going on with the Sun. With the recent burst of sunspots, “I don’t see we’re going into that,” Dr. Hathaway said last week. Still, something like the Dalton Minimum — two solar cycles in the early 1800s that peaked at about an average of 50 sunspots — lies in the realm of the possible, Dr. Hathaway said. (The minimums are named after scientists who helped identify them: Edward W. Maunder and John Dalton.)

With better telescopes on the ground and a fleet of Sun-watching spacecraft, solar scientists know a lot more about the Sun than ever before. But they do not understand everything. Solar dynamo models, which seek to capture the dynamics of the magnetic field, cannot yet explain many basic questions, not even why the solar cycles average 11 years in length. Predicting the solar cycle is, in many ways, much like predicting the stock market. A full understanding of the forces driving solar dynamics is far out of reach, so scientists look to key indicators that correlate with future events and create models based on those.

For example, in 2006, Dr. Hathaway looked at the magnetic fields in the polar regions of the Sun, and they were strong. During past cycles, strong polar fields at minimum grew into strong fields all over the Sun at maximum and a bounty of sunspots. Because the previous cycle had been longer than average, Dr. Hathaway thought the next one would be shorter and thus solar minimum was imminent. He predicted the new solar cycle would be a ferocious one. Instead, the new cycle did not arrive as quickly as Dr. Hathaway anticipated, and the polar field weakened. His revised prediction is for a smaller-than-average maximum. Last November, it looked like the new cycle was finally getting started, with the new cycle sunspots in the middle latitudes outnumbering the old sunspots of the dying cycle that are closer to the equator.

After a minimum, solar activity usually takes off quickly, but instead the Sun returned to slumber. “There was a long lull of several months of virtually no activity, which had me worried,” Dr. Hathaway said.

The idea that solar cycles are related to climate is hard to fit with the actual change in energy output from the sun. From solar maximum to solar minimum, the Sun’s energy output drops a minuscule 0.1 percent. But the overlap of the Maunder Minimum with the Little Ice Age, when Europe experienced unusually cold weather, suggests that the solar cycle could have more subtle influences on climate.

One possibility proposed a decade ago by Henrik Svensmark and other scientists at the Danish National Space Center in Copenhagen looks to high-energy interstellar particles known as cosmic rays. When cosmic rays slam into the atmosphere, they break apart air molecules into ions and electrons, which causes water and sulfuric acid in the air to stick together in tiny droplets. These droplets are seeds that can grow into clouds, and clouds reflect sunlight, potentially lowering temperatures. The Sun, the Danish scientists say, influences how many cosmic rays impinge on the atmosphere and thus the number of clouds. When the Sun is frenetic, the solar wind of charged particles it spews out increases. That expands the cocoon of magnetic fields around the solar system, deflecting some of the cosmic rays. But, according to the hypothesis, when the sunspots and solar winds die down, the magnetic cocoon contracts, more cosmic rays reach Earth, more clouds form, less sunlight reaches the ground, and temperatures cool.

“I think it’s an important effect,” Dr. Svensmark said, although he agrees that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has certainly contributed to recent warming. Dr. Svensmark and his colleagues found a correlation between the rate of incoming cosmic rays and the coverage of low-level clouds between 1984 and 2002. They have also found that cosmic ray levels, reflected in concentrations of various isotopes, correlate well with climate extending back thousands of years.

But other scientists found no such pattern with higher clouds, and some other observations seem inconsistent with the hypothesis. Terry Sloan, a cosmic ray expert at the University of Lancaster in England, said if the idea were true, one would expect the cloud-generation effect to be greatest in the polar regions where the Earth’s magnetic field tends to funnel cosmic rays. “You’d expect clouds to be modulated in the same way,” Dr. Sloan said. “We can’t find any such behavior.” Still, “I would think there could well be some effect,” he said, but he thought the effect was probably small. Dr. Sloan’s findings indicate that the cosmic rays could at most account for 20 percent of the warming of recent years.

Even without cosmic rays, however, a 0.1 percent change in the Sun’s energy output is enough to set off El Niño- and La Niña-like events that can influence weather around the world, according to new research led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Climate modeling showed that over the largely cloud-free areas of the Pacific Ocean, the extra heating over several years warms the water, increasing evaporation. That intensifies the tropical storms and trade winds in the eastern Pacific, and the result is cooler-than-normal waters, as in a La Niña event, the scientists reported this month in the Journal of Climate. In a year or two, the cool water pattern evolves into a pool of El Niño-like warm water, the scientists said.

New instruments should provide more information for scientists to work with. A 1.7-meter telescope at the Big Bear Solar Observatory in Southern California is up and running, and one of its first photographs shows “a string of pearls,” each about 50 miles across. “At that scale, they can only be the fundamental fibril structure of the Sun’s magnetic field,” said Philip R. Goode, director of the solar observatory. Other telescopes may have caught hints of these tiny structures, he said, but “never so many in a row and not so clearly resolved.”

Sun-watching spacecraft cannot match the acuity of ground-based telescopes, but they can see wavelengths that are blocked by the atmosphere — and there are never any clouds in the way. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s newest sun-watching spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which is scheduled for launching this fall, will carry an instrument that will essentially be able to take sonograms that deduce the convection flows generating the magnetic fields. That could help explain why strong magnetic fields sometimes coalesce into sunspots and why sometimes the strong fields remain disorganized without forming spots. The mechanics of how solar storms erupt out of a sunspot are also not fully understood.

A quiet cycle is no guarantee no cataclysmic solar storms will occur. The largest storm ever observed occurred in 1859, during a solar cycle similar to what is predicted. Back then, it scrambled telegraph wires. Today, it could knock out an expanse of the power grid from Maine south to Georgia and west to Illinois. Ten percent of the orbiting satellites would be disabled. A study by the National Academy of Sciences calculated the damage would exceed a trillion dollars.

But no one can quite explain the current behavior or reliably predict the future. “We still don’t quite understand this beast,” Dr. Hathaway said. “The theories we had for how the sunspot cycle works have major problems.”


India tells Clinton: No carbon cuts

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton struggled Sunday to find a silver lining in India's rejection of legally binding carbon-dioxide-emissions reductions, saying a plan can be devised to fight climate change and boost India's economic development at the same time.

Addressing one of the most contentious issues between New Delhi and Washington on the first day of her visit to the Indian capital, Mrs. Clinton tried to focus on the positive aspects of India's environmental record, such as its interest in clean energy.

Her Indian hosts, however, got straight to the point. "We are simply not in a position to take on legally binding emissions reduction targets," India's minister of environment, Jairam Ramesh, told reporters, standing beside the secretary at New Delhi's ITC Green Center, which is designed to use maximum natural light with windows that keep out heat, reducing the need for air conditioning.

India and China are leading a group of developing countries opposed to Western calls for specific targets in a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. A major summit is scheduled for early December in Copenhagen, where the United States and other developed countries hope to make significant progress.

Aware that no global treaty can work without commitment from the world's biggest polluters, Mrs. Clinton tried to convince India that such progress can be achieved without sacrificing their development needs. "I'm very confident the United States and India can devise a plan that will dramatically change the way we produce, consume and conserve energy and in the process spark an explosion of new investment and millions of jobs," she said.

She did not elaborate. A senior State Department official traveling with Mrs. Clinton said she did not have a specific plan in mind and that her confidence was based on various ideas she has heard on both sides.

While conceding that developed countries have harmed the environment, particularly during their industrialization, Mrs. Clinton said developing nations must not repeat their "mistakes."


Eco-friendly light bulbs flip switch on problems

An energy-efficiency measure is turning into a ticking green time bomb

The federal government plans to require consumers over the next several years to replace incandescent light bulbs with more expensive but more energy-efficient and longer-lasting compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).

But improper disposal of the mercury-powered bulbs poses an environmental hazard, and the federal government has given little guidance to consumers. The outlets for safe disposal are few and haphazard, and history suggests that compliance will be spotty.

"The problem to the environment comes when millions get disposed of and the cumulative effect becomes problematic. That is when the [Environmental Protection Agency] gets concerned," said Neal Langerman, a former chairman of the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Health and Safety. "If you have a municipal urban landfill and have a population of 450,000 households disposing of one or two CFLs a year - you do the arithmetic. Put one-half milligram of mercury per bulb, it amounts to a significant loading, and mercury does migrate into groundwater."

Although California has banned CFLs from trash since 2006, local governments there estimate that less than 10 percent of CFLs receive proper disposal and recycling, said San Francisco's KGO-TV.

Revised standards for home appliances and lighting under the December 2007 energy bill require incandescent light bulbs - the basic model that has been used for 130 years - to be phased out in order to achieve about 25 percent greater efficiency for bulbs by 2014 and about 200 percent greater efficiency by 2020.

Without organized programs to educate consumers on safe handling and disposal of used or broken bulbs, landfills are likely to become even more polluted, Mr. Langerman told The Washington Times. "The appropriate thing for us as a nation is not to dispose but have an aggressive take-back program," said Mr. Langerman, who advocates a profit incentive for recycling, a system where "if you go out of your way [to safely dispose or recycle the bulbs] you get some money back. People will do this if made convenient."

The federal Web site Energy Star (www.energystar.gov) notes that each CFL bulb contains an average of 4 milligrams of mercury, compared with the 500 milligrams contained in old-style glass thermometers. None of the mercury is released in operation, and leakage is a risk only if the bulbs are broken.

The site says "electricity use is the main source of mercury emissions in the U.S.," so it's important that CFLs use less electricity than incandescent lights. The EPA says that "a 13-watt, 8,000-rated-hour-life CFL (60-watt equivalent; a common light bulb type)" will save enough energy over its lifetime to offset even all of its mercury leakage into landfills.



The system of trading carbon emissions at the heart of the ambitious low-carbon plan announced by the government last week is seriously flawed and close to becoming irrelevant, according to researchers behind a new analysis.

So-called "hot air" carbon credits – those which do not result in any actual emissions cuts – could be so numerous that companies covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme would not have to make any cuts to their own emissions until 2015, says the report from climate campaign group, Sandbag. The hot air permits result from the over-allocation of emissions allowances and from those going unused as the recession cuts economic activity.

The ETS covers 50% of the UK and EU's carbon emissions, mainly in the energy, cement, steel, glass and manufacturing sectors. Companies in these sectors are allocated allowances for the carbon they emit, with the total number shrinking over time, theoretically forcing companies to buy additional permits to pollute if they do not cut their emissions.

A large proportion of the UK's promised cut of 34% by 2020 will come via British companies in the ETS. Globally, the carbon trading market was worth €92bn (£79bn) in 2008, trading 5bn tonnes. However, the large number of carbon permits that have been allocated and a fall in emissions due to the recession, have made the trading system less effective.



You may recall the Beyond the Fringe sketch in which Squadron Leader Peter Cook tells Jonathan Miller, the doleful pilot, that he must set out on a doomed mission because “we need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war”.

I was irresistibly reminded of this by Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, in his launch of plans to cut carbon emissions by switching to “renewables” for more than 30% of our energy use. This, he claimed, would “rise to the moral challenge of climate change”.

Miliband is of the generation of politicians struggling to find a great moral cause. Earlier in the Labour administration Tony Blair thought he had found it with wars of choice far from home, but that has, to put it mildly, lost its lustre. Now it is the “war against climate change”, given additional moral potency by the notion that the greatest concentration of sufferers from global rising temperatures would be among the world’s poorest.

Miliband’s citing of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in support of his policy of subsidising the construction of many thousands of otherwise uneconomic wind turbines might appear grotesque, even comical; but not if you genuinely believe that Britain’s switching from coal to wind power for its electricity generation will save the lives of countless Africans.

I have no idea whether Miliband truly believes that it will - but if he does, he is deluded. The UK is responsible for less than 2% of global carbon emissions - a figure set to fall sharply, regardless of what we do, as a result of the startlingly rapid industrial-isation of countries such as China and India: each year the increase in Chinese CO2 emissions alone is greater than those produced by the entire British economy. On the fashionable assumption that climate change is entirely driven by CO2 emissions, the effect on global temperatures of Britain closing every fossil fuel power station would be much smaller than the statistical margin of error: in effect, zero.

The scientists at the energy and climate change department know this, but their political masters see things differently. Gordon Brown claims: “Britain is leading the world in the battle against climate change.” Such remarks are regarded as absurd in the chancelleries of Europe: if you do take as a measure of such commitment the proportion of domestic energy already supplied by renewables, the UK occupies 25th place in the European Union league table, above only Malta and Luxembourg.

Nevertheless, there is one great merit in being a follower rather than a leader in renewable energy: we can see how other European countries have fared in the experiment. Germany has long been subsidising wind power to the extent of almost €5 billion a year. Yet recent German Green party internal e-mails leaked to Der Spiegel magazine show this has not led to a reduction of a single gram of CO2 emitted on the continent of Europe. The much-vaunted emissions trading system is one reason: Germany’s unused certificates were snapped up at negligible cost by coal producers in countries such as Poland and Slovakia, which were thus able to increase their output of greenhouse gases.

There is a second reason, which would remain even if the European emissions trading system were to be scrapped. Because the wind blows intermittently, and may be at its calmest at times of freezing weather, Germany has not been able to close a single one of its conventional power stations, despite its vast investment in wind power.

Indeed, Paul Golby, who runs the British operations of E.ON, Europe’s biggest wind-power producer, has told the government that a 90% fossil fuel or nuclear back-up will be needed for any of the National Grid’s future wind-power capacity. As Martin Fuchs, his German boss, pointed out: “The wind, sadly, does not blow where large quantities of power are required . . . on September 12 last year wind power contributed 38% of our grid power requirements at all times, but on September 30 the figure went down to 0.2%.”

The powerful wind-turbine lobby in Germany constantly harps on about the number of jobs “created” by its subsidised investment, quite ignoring the number of jobs destroyed by high-cost energy, or indeed the greater number of jobs that could be created if the same amounts were invested in more profitable activities. This is why the Bremen Energy Institute argues that “wind energy macro-economically has a negative employment impact”.

Given the run-down state of our conventional generating capacity, it is easy to see that the government’s suspiciously round number of a “£100 billion” expenditure on installing 7,000 offshore steel structures, each the height of Blackpool Tower, at a projected rate of more than two every working day over the next decade, does not begin to cover the real cost. This is why the overall price of wind energy is a multiple of that incurred by nuclear power, which is equally carbon-free but does not appeal to the moral vanity of politicians.

Admittedly, the Labour government has made a belated commitment to replacing our ageing nuclear reactors – far too late to fill the yawning energy gap that Britain faces in the coming decade. As Professor Ian Fells points out in the new Civitas pamphlet Nations Choose Prosperity: “The energy agenda is focused on carbon emissions rather than security of supply and potential costs. What is rarely considered is the consequential costs when power cuts are inflicted.” These costs are not just measured in the collapse of business, but also in human lives, especially of the elderly and infirm.

Miliband claimed last week that the result of his proposals would be an increase in costs to energy users of about 17%. However, the business and enterprise department admitted last year that Britain’s existing “climate policies” - even before Miliband’s latest Big New Idea - would add an extra 55% to energy bills. It’s obvious where this will lead: to the exit from Britain (and, indeed, Europe) of much of what remains of energy-intensive manufacturing industry - the euphemistic jargon term is “carbon leakage”.

Jeremy Nicholson, the director of the Energy Intensive Users Group, which represents such industries as steel and aluminium, is exasperated beyond measure: “A future administration will have to say in public what ministers and their officials already admit in private, that the renewables target is neither practical nor affordable. Outsourcing our emissions is not a solution to a global problem. Politicians need to understand that unilateral action will come at a terrible cost in terms of UK manufacturing jobs, investment and export revenue, for no discernible environmental gain - is that really what they want?”

On the day Nicholson said this to me, last Thursday, Anglesey Aluminium, the biggest consumer of electricity in Wales, announced that it would cease production, precisely because it could see no prospect of signing up to a long-term supply of electricity at a rate at which it could make a profit. And on the day of Miliband’s announcement, a group of Labour MPs presented a “Save Our Steel” petition, saying: “We need to make sure we act before the light goes out.”

It may well be that the English steel mills will become unable to compete globally, even at current domestic energy prices; but deliberately to make them uncompetitive is industrial vandalism - and even madness when the consequence of Miliband’s Martin Luther King moment may be the lights going out not just for producers but for all of us in our homes. This is worse than a futile gesture: it is immoral.



By Holger Krahmer (Holger Krahmer, German Liberal, is a member of the European Parliament's environment committee and of the temporary committee on climate change)

Many around the world believe the environment can be protected through regulation. Even the United States is going down this path now. Before it acts too swiftly, the United States might want to consider some of the lessons that we have learned the hard way in Europe.

As a member of the European Parliament, I have worked on environmental protection for years, particularly as rapporteur for the European Union's Air Quality Directive that was successfully implemented last year.

This experience has taught me two key things:

(1) Economic growth is the base for the political and technological capacity necessary to make a clean environment possible. A dynamic economy is not inimical to a healthy environment; it is a prerequisite.

(2) Political leaders can achieve real results for the environment when they take a no-nonsense, pragmatic approach and work together.

Coming from East Germany, I saw firsthand how heavy-handed bureaucracy led to both poor economic performance and a poor environment. For decades, East Germany had among the worst environmental protection records in all of Europe.

Indeed, we are still paying a high environmental toll for the years of eschewing market forces while permitting the political class to make economic choices for the nation. Poverty is the planet's real environmental crisis. So policymakers who care about a clean and healthy environment need to support policies that promote economic growth.

The United States is now considering legislating about greenhouse gases emitted from industrial activities. In its current form, this legislation will almost surely put a significant damper on economic growth and throw environmental protections into jeopardy.

Europe has already adopted a cap-and-trade regulatory apparatus similar to the one being debated in Washington. Europe's experiment is called the Emissions Trading System (ETS), and it hasn't worked very well. For starters, we agreed to give emission permits away for free, a political compromise required to get industrial groups onboard. This is something the current legislation in Washington does as well. This created a windfall for emitting industries and sowed confusion in the market. At the same time, it did little to place downward pressure on emissions.

As a result, permit prices have swung wildly, as much as 70 percent in a single day. They continue to fluctuate on average about 17 percent a month. This makes sensible, long-term industrial development much more costly and difficult. Besides, giving investment bankers another area where they can wildly speculate and create artificial bubbles paid for by the consumers is not the soundest of ideas.

There is a cautionary tale here -- one way to reduce emissions is to weaken your economy. Such a goal is politically unacceptable, which is why policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic opt for the cap-and-trade systems that are too complex and notoriously opaque and difficult for the public to understand.

This is not to say there aren't sensible and environmentally friendly ways of working on emissions reductions. For example, the United States and the European Union could work together to reach an agreement at COP 15 (the United Nations Climate Change Conference) in Copenhagen this December that allows for economic growth and technologically driven solutions to climate change.

This would encourage innovation and development of low or zero-emission technologies, and expand the range of options for addressing emissions and climate change to include geo-engineering and adaptation strategies. This approach would also help create real jobs in green research and development rather than fake jobs in bureaucratic emissions trading.

Hasty government decision-making, particularly in pursuit of ideologically motivated goals, can do lasting harm. It is the experience of my former country of East Germany and of others that put utopian aims ahead of the concerns of citizens and the environment.

It would be a shame for Americans to overlook the lessons of recent history.



For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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