Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Some things the IPCC has ignored

An email from David Whitehouse []

Some media commentators have told us that the IPCC's "Synthesis" report has settled the science of global warming beyond doubt and that alternative approaches or indeed modifications to the CO2 greenhouse warming effect have lost the scientific argument. Certainly the working hypothesis of CO2 induced global warming is a good one that stands on good physical principles but let us not pretend our understanding extends too far or that the working hypothesis is a sufficient explanation for what is going on.

Clearly the world of the past 30 years is warmer than the previous decades and there is abundant evidence (in the northern hemisphere at least) that the world is responding to those elevated temperatures, though not yet the Polar Bears.

However, it was a pity the Synthesis report did not look in more detail at the recent warming trend the Earth has experienced - that has taken place since about 1980, as this and the rising CO2 levels are surely at the heart of the problem. Had this warm period not occurred we would have no talk of global warming and perhaps, as happened in the 1970's, we would fear a new Ice Age! This omission means that, contrary to what Ban Ki-Moon said, the Synthesis report has not answered so many questions relating to global warming or what will happen in the future. It seems that one can only understand what is going on (and make predictions) if one's vision is narrow and one talks in soundbites.

The fact that the recent warming period can be divided into two distinct periods is surely instructive and has a direct bearing on the IPCC's projections for the future and its mitigation strategies. The period 1980 -98 was one of rapid warming - a temperature anomaly of about 0.6 degrees C or 0.3 deg C per decade (CO2 rose from 340ppm to 370ppm). Since then the global temperature has been flat (whilst the CO2 has risen from 370ppm to 380ppm) meaning that the global temperature is about 0.3 deg less than it would have been had the rapid increase continued. (This leads me to suggest, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that there has been global cooling in the past decade as a decrease in the increase of temperature is a cooling!) The 1980 - 98 increase is generally similar to the increase seen between 1910 and 1940 which was 0.6 deg C in 30 years. It may be that the current flatlining of global temperature will be similar to that seen between 1940 and 1980 in that it will be followed by another increase (as the UK's Met Office believes will commence in 2009) but we don't know.

Incidentally, all the indications are that the global temperature of 2007 will be the coolest since 2000. This is interesting as there have been no significant volcanic events and no La Nina cooling.

How can it be that the atmosphere has responded so differently to a steady increase in CO2 levels and the constant temperature forcing that implies? As I argued in a previous post to CCNet (25th October 2007) the flat temperature of the past decade is difficult to explain. Adding reflective aerosols to the atmosphere (a byproduct of greenhouse gas emissions or volcanoes) is contrived and requires unlikely circumstances. Other explanations such as the ocean cooling effect of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation or the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation are also difficult to adjust so that they exactly compensate for the increasing upward temperature drag of rising CO2.

Also disappointing in the IPCC report was the lack of mention of the uncertainties involving solar effects and what they could mean for future predictions of global warming. There is a growing school of thought that suggests that the next solar cycle, cycle 24, could be weak and possibly the start of a prolonged period of low activity. There are certainly signs of a decline after a significant increase in solar activity throughout most of the last century. In the past when this has occurred the Earth has cooled though by what mechanism is unknown.

Despite what has been said the Sun is still an important factor to consider, more so if the temperature flatlining continues. It was thought (by climatologists) that solar driven climate change was too small to be detected but recent studies of decadal solar influences show they can be detected. Mostly their influence is small but there are huge differences that point to unknown amplification effects.

In the past few years we have been learning more and more about such things as differential solar heating, trade wind effects, solar induced upwelling of cooler water in the oceans and the fact that solar activity alters the interaction between the Earth's surface and the atmosphere in driving fundamental convection cells. In the past decade we have also discovered that the cloudy lower atmosphere absorbs more visible and IR radiation than previously thought. It has also been realised relatively recently that the IR from the sun varies more than visible. In addition, the unexpectedly large global decadal cycle of 0.1 deg C seen at an altitude of 2 km cannot easily be explained.

The point is that we cannot predict the future until we understand these things. Clearly the Earth's natural state is not to have so much CO2 in its atmosphere and it would be prudent to reduce it. But let's acknowledge the considerable scientific uncertainties and differentiate between the effects of increasing global temperatures on the one hand and increasing CO2 levels on the other.

I have heard it said, by scientists, journalists and politicians, that the time for debate is over and that further scientific debate only causes delay in action. As scientists we must never bend our desire to know what is going on to any political cause, however noble. The science is fascinating, the ramifications profound, but we are fools or perhaps politicians if we convince ourselves that we know more than we do and when we are satisfied to describe such a complicated system in a soundbite.

Greenie people-hate on display again

Halting population growth in developing countries should be part of a global strategy to reduce mankind's impact on the environment, according to an eminent expatriate Australian scientist. Immediate past president of the Royal Society, Professor Lord Robert May said that, given the threat of climate change, a declining global population was "a prerequisite" if humanity was to achieve a sustainable ecological footprint in the future. Addressing the Lowy Institute in Sydney last night, Lord May said a priority was educating and empowering women, "particularly in those cultures where this is not currently the case".

Lord May, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government who was made a companion of the Order of Australia in 1998, said this would be assisted by achieving universal primary school education and promoting gender equality. The United Nations estimates 700 million women, or two thirds of all those married or in stable unions, use some method of contraception. "In my view, religious beliefs or other ideological prejudices prompt some major international organisations to oppose contraception, forbidding distribution of condoms or even advice about fertility control," Lord May said.

He said it was encouraging that in the past year global fertility rates fell below replacement levels for the first time in recorded history, with the average female now having slightly less than one female child. Global population growth is predicted to increase to 9 billion by 2050, driven by strong growth in developing countries, while declining birth rates in developed countries create their own inter-generational problems.

Lord May warned that cutting population alone would not address environmental problems, as smaller populations tended to be associated with increasing standards of living and higher environmental impacts per capita. He warned of the growing threat of conflicts and mass movements of people as the world's population fought over limited water supplies and other resources. "All this rolls together with rapid and continuing advances in information technology, which simultaneously makes things better and worse," he said. "Better because we can more easily and effectively co-ordinate action, once motivated to do so; worse because in such a global village the massive inequities between groups are clearly exposed."

Lord May warned that the re-emergence of fundamentalism in the world was a reaction against the liberating force of the new information age.



In the latest Nature, Chris Thomas says:
"This year the baiji river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), a victim of the pollution and boat traffic of China's Yangtze river, was added to the list of creatures on the verge of extinction. Is this part of the sixth mass extinction in 450 million years, or does the recent spate of losses caused by humans represent a blip in the history of life on Earth? Michael Novacek's Terra takes stock of the situation and provides an opportunity to learn from the past. ...

Of course, we shall solve some of these issues with technological fixes. Yet if we maintain 9 billion avaricious people on Earth for the next millennium, a sixth extinction event seems inevitable. The geological perspective of Terra is bizarrely reassuring. Humans will presumably be gone within a few million years, perhaps sooner. If the past that Novacek describes is a guide to the future, global ecosystem processes will be restored some tens of thousands to a million years after our demise, and new forms of life over the ensuing millions of years will exploit the denuded planet we leave behind. Thirty million years on, things will be back to normal, albeit a very different `normal' from before. It is good to be optimistic. The problem is living here in the meantime."

Thomas is "optimistic" that humans and any descendants with a remotely similar population or resource-intensive technology will be extinct in a million years. Yet if a plague, for example, were to produce this outcome within the next ten years, I'm pretty sure most everyone would see this as a catastrophe of the highest possible order. So how does this become a good thing if it happens in the next million years?



Much safer to spend the money on a metastasizing bureaucracy

British astronomers were last night shocked by a sudden funding cut that will prevent them having access to two of the world's most advanced telescopes. A Government funding council yesterday announced it would pull out of the Gemini Observatory - twin 26ft telescopes in Hawaii and Chile which together can be used to observe the entire sky. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) said it was pulling out of the observatory, in which Britain has a 23 per cent stake, despite the Government having invested 35 million pounds in building it.

Prof Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), said: "This decision is a serious mistake and a shock to all of us. "If it goes ahead it will deny UK scientists access to large telescopes in the northern hemisphere and hinder their ability to study almost half the sky. I call on the STFC to rethink this proposal."



The Independent, the `compact' UK newspaper known as the Indie (the Independent on Sunday being the Sindie), which is infamous for its doom-laden front pages on `global warming' (and many other PC topics), is clearly in trouble. I have just been trawling through a few interesting reports and facts:

Writing in The Observer (November 11), Peter Preston comments that "the relaunched, more anorexic Independent on Sunday is 8.37 per cent off October 2006 (with only 132,000 UK readers prepared to stump up 1.80 pounds)" and that, at the newsstand, the "Independent, with not much of a net presence at all, is down 6.72 per cent in a year." The circulation of the Indie in August, 2007 was a mere 240,116 [according to the UK ABC (Audited Bureau of Circulations)], a 5.37% drop from November 2006, and way, way below The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times.

Moreover, unlike The Guardian (c. 18 million unique users), the poor Indie is unlikely to be saved by its website, which must be one of the dullest in the world. The word `anorexic' again crosses one's mind.

And now, today, the `Financial Section' of The Times reveals that "Denis O'Brien, the Irish telecoms billionaire, has called on Sir Anthony O'Reilly to sell The Independent newspaper and resign as the chief executive of the company behind the loss-making London-based title. `The Independent has to go, as do other vanity projects,' Mr O'Brien told The Times in an uncompromising interview."

Well, I never like the loss of media and debating outlets, but I have to say that the demise, if that were ever to happen, of the Indie would bring fewer tears to my eyes than most. As a purveyor of gloom and doom, it has been second to none. Even one environmentalist confided to me that, when on the tube or the bus, she felt she had to read it hidden between less lurid covers.

Still, it would be a pity. Over the years, the Indie has proved a rich seam for bloggers and commentators alike - even beats the old Guardian, and that is saying something these days. Clearly doom and gloom on a daily basis doesn't in the end sell. After all, why bother to read a newspaper when the triffids are lurking behind every page?


A fit of peak

The doom-laden vision of a post-oil world put forward in a radical new documentary is as crude as the black stuff that gushes from the ground

With crude oil prices pushing up towards $100 per barrel, it's a good time to release a documentary that argues we're in imminent danger from dwindling oil supply. According to A Crude Awakening, demand for oil is accelerating while supply has peaked and will shortly go into rapid decline. The result will be social disruption on a scale unseen since the Great Depression. Sounds scary - but in reality these arguments seem as crude as the black stuff gushing from the ground.

The film, made by Swiss journalist Basil Gelpke and Irish producer Ray McCormack, is a diatribe against the evils of an oil-based economy. Opening with a narration befitting a horror movie, we are told that oil is the `devil's excrement' and the `blood of the earth'. Through interviews with a number of experts, activists and politicians, Gelpke and McCormack argue that developed economies, most notably the USA, are utterly dependent on oil. Farming, transportation, plastics - in fact, the production of pretty much everything - depends on a supply of oil. For example, every calorie of food energy we produce requires 10 calories of energy inputs - mostly oil. The vast majority of travel, too, is powered by oil pumped from the ground.

Supply and demand

The problem, according to the film, is that production may have peaked or is just about to do so. The world is currently using roughly 85million barrels of oil per day (1). (A barrel of oil is 42 US gallons or 159 litres.) Demand is booming due to rapid economic growth in China and India and steadily increasing demand in the developed world. The filmmakers argue that there have been no new big oilfield discoveries since the late 1960s when huge quantities of oil were discovered in the North Sea and Alaska.

As it happens, the film's opening in the UK coincided with an announcement by the Brazilian government of a new offshore field, Tupi Sul, that could ultimately provide eight billion barrels of oil. But this will not come fully on-stream for a few years and will only provide a small portion of the world's growing oil needs each year (2). In fact, the total oil from this field would only supply current levels of world consumption for about three months. Worse, according to the film, the declared remaining reserves of oil in many members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) may be greatly overstated. In the past, OPEC members have had an interest in exaggerating their remaining stocks since OPEC production quotas have been based on declared reserves.

The really big fields with long potential reserves are in the Middle East - hardly a stable region. This question of stability informs comments in the film by Stanford politics professor Terry Lynn Karl, who provides a fairly outrageous example of the war-for-oil thesis. Karl believes that the two Gulf Wars were driven by a desire to seize and control oil reserves - which is slightly bizarre, given that Iraq's oil could more easily and cheaply have been controlled by propping up Saddam rather than removing him. But this war-for-oil thesis apparently knows no bounds, with Karl glibly suggesting that everything from the civil war in Sudan to the two World Wars can be put down `in part' to a scramble for oil.

Solving the problem

The film is already showing its age, however. Much of the discussion in the film is about how there is more oil under the ground, but that it is not economically viable to dig it up. As one US oil worker notes, in incredulous tones, the oil price would have to be $50 a barrel for it to make sense. But since prices have now shot up to nearer $100 a barrel, a range of possibilities opens up, even if current high nominal prices are to some extent a product of the weak dollar.

Suddenly, getting that oil out of the ground is good business. Other opportunities arise: expensive exploration in relatively uncharted territories starts to make sense because the gamble could have such a huge pay-off; exploration methods themselves can improve; finding ways to recover a greater percentage of the oil in any particular field would be a boon; producing liquid fuels from the world's abundant stocks of coal - pointless when oil itself is cheap - is now practical and economic. For all the severe limitations of the free market, it is quite clear that a rising oil price provides strong incentives to explore both oil-based and non-oil avenues for future energy production.

But the filmmakers seem uninterested in the possibility that declining oil stocks are a problem that could be solved. `The demand is so huge there is nothing we can imagine to replace oil in those quantities', suggests David L Goodstein, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. Instead, A Crude Awakening provides a litany of disastrous consequences that must inevitably result from peak oil. Particularly enthusiastic doom-sayers include the rather excitable Colin Campbell, a former oil geologist and founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), and Matthew Savinar, whose website, Life After the Oil Crash, greets us with the cheery thought that: `Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon.' The film draws to a close with footage of an Amish man driving his pony and trap, as if to say that this is the future of transport.

Against the pessimism of the peak oil theorists is the reality that we do not `worship' oil nor are we addicted to it. Oil is simply an extremely cheap and very effective solution to a number of technical problems. If oil production does decline - and it would be wrong to simply assume that as yet - we'll have to find new solutions instead. In the short term, no single alternative fuel source will take the place of oil. But unless oil production suddenly collapses, which is unlikely, replacements only need to substitute for part of what oil would otherwise supply in the short-term. Bio-fuels, clean coal, nuclear power, hydrogen, solar and wind power will all, to some extent, have a part to play - along with technologies that have not yet been developed.

Greater efficiency will surely also kick in. When oil is cheaper than bottled water or milk, there is little incentive to find more efficient modes of transport or alternative precursors for chemicals currently produced from oil. The oft-quoted saying `We didn't stop using horses because we ran out of hay' is very true. Long before supplies completely run out, oil and the technologies that demand it, like the internal combustion engine, will be replaced by something else. In all likelihood, those substitutes will be better than the technology we currently have.

A crude outlook

The notion of peak oil appeals to a mindset that cannot believe that the future holds anything but disaster. This outlook can be found in all manner of discussions from the `obesity epidemic' to the pensions crisis precipitated by the `demographic timebomb' to catastrophic climate change. This mood was beautifully summed up by the journalist and former Independent editor Rosie Boycott as she chaired a question-and-answer session with the co-producer of A Crude Awakening, Ray McCormack, in London last Friday. Responding to the suggestion from the audience that the refusal to see that oil has peaked is `macho', Boycott said:

`Completely hard-wired into every one of us is a belief that literally since we came out of the swamp we've been in this thing called Progress. And while it may have brought ups and downs, it's never let us down. You can chart that things have got more extraordinary and more amazing and diseases have been solved and everything has been solved. I'm in my fifties and I've grown up as a child believing that science solved everything. It's only in the last few years that I've realised that science can't solve some things and science makes things worse. for the first time in all these millions and millions of years that we've been here, we're actually going to go backwards.'

Boycott's outlook is widely shared, particularly amongst former radicals like herself (she was once at the forefront of feminist publishing, co-founding Spare Rib and Virago Books). Society, it is believed, can no longer move forward and, in fact, the very attempt to solve problems will actually make things worse.

This worldview cannot account for the continuing expansion of both wealth and the duration and quality of life. That does not mean that there are no problems in the world today - there are many massive problems to be tackled. New problems, some of them the product of human activity, will emerge. But the most serious possibility that society might really `go backwards' will come from the belief that Progress is a failure. Boycott's comments are a very good illustration of the societal suicide note that many people seem anxious to write.

Oil production has almost certainly not peaked. Even if it has, it's high time we moved on to smarter technologies. But if the ideas that underpin A Crude Awakening become truly popular, then civilisation itself may well have peaked, disintegrating into a heap of self-doubt.



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


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're missing the point. This movie is about Geology and most people interviewed are even fairly conservative. It's not about green or not - it's purely about geological facts and how to take the right measures so our kids and grand children can enjoy some of the goodies too... Cheers, Basil