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Dave’s Global Warming Summary

7:10 am on Friday, September 22, 2006

Patrick asked me to do a write-up on Global Warming and what we could do to address it.  I have done various posts on global warming before, but here is an overview of what I think about this issue and what our best course of action is.

I don’t claim to be a climate scientist, or any sort of scientist for that matter, but the opinions below are formed from a variety of sources.  I have read a fair amount on global warming, from a variety of sources and I think I have a fairly good grasp of the issue from a layman’s perspective at least.  Everything below is probably somewhat controversial, I will welcome arguments on anything and additional data to refute what I say, but these opinions are based on a synthesis of multiple sources, so one additional bit of evidence is unlikely to change my views.  As this is a synthesis, I won’t present any specific references for any point.  I am aware that every item below will have some studies or articles that contradict it, as well as some that support it.
First, the things I believe followed by what, in light of these beliefs, I think we should do about it.
1)  The global climate is experiencing a warming trend.  This is fairly certain.  At the same time, as is always the case, specific geological areas are also experiences shifts in local climate.  Separating the two is difficult, and often an extreme case may be as much a result of the later as the former.  Nevertheless, some warming is occurring.
2) The most likely hypothesis is that the majority of this warming is human caused.   We don’t know all the causes of the observed warming, whether human induced or not, and we have a very poor understanding of the feedback loops that warming will cause.
3) Warming over the next century is likely to be relatively mild.  2-3 degrees is probably the best guess.  This may cause some flooding of low-lying areas, but will not present a catastrophic threat to life on earth.  Life has survived far more dramatic climate swings.  That said, the economic impact of these changes may be significant.
4) Our ability to accurately model is very low.  We know that the earth’s climate is a complex system and we know that there are a variety of feedback loops.  Change one variable (C02 in the atmosphere) and all of the other variables (CO2 absorption by plants for example) change as well.   That doesn’t mean that modeling is a useless tool, but it does mean that we should not count on it too much.
5) Global warming is a political debate with a lot of differing motives involved, many of which are not always obvious.  This politics involved have bled over, and sometimes corrupted, the science.  Too much of the science on global warming is science by press release, designed to achieve a specific political end rather than a dispassionate rational analysis of the problem at hand.  This is true on both sides.
6) There are two possible ways to deal with a changing climate.  One is to act to prevent the change, the other is to prepare to adapt to the change.  Both of these have differing costs.  Sometimes, they can be mutually exclusive.  For any preventative to be effective, it must be based upon an accurate and detailed understanding of the problem.  Adaptation on the other hand can often be more generalized (as an example, I keep a rainy day fund that will help me adapt to any unknown future problem.)
7) Some proposed preventative measures, the Kyoto Protocol in specific, are already known to be insufficient to prevent the majority of the expected changes, even assuming all that all the variables are correctly understood by those pushing for such measures.  If they are wrong, it won’t work and if they are right it won’t have much effect at all.  If the cost was trivial this might not matter but that is not the case.
8) The overall best adaptive strategy is a growing economy.  A large economy is more adaptable than a small economy.  Wealth is a cushion against change.
9) A growing economy requires increasing energy supplies.
10) Nature does not love us.  It is not good, kind, gentle or caring.  Humanity success is based upon overcoming nature.  Intelligence, reason, and technology are helpful and necessary for humanity.
11) Although nature does not love us, being good steward of nature is mandatory, both for aesthetic and logical reasons.  Don’t foul your nest.
So that is pretty much the ‘facts’ as I see them.  I think it unlikely that anyone will change my opinion on any of the above any time soon.  Based upon those facts, there are a number of things we can and should do.  I am a lot more open to additional suggestions.
1) Remove artificial barriers toward the development of nuclear power.  While we need to ensure that nuclear plants are safe, the regulations and red tape involved in building on, and the uncertainty that these hoops will be negotiable and effectively ended nuclear power plant production in this country.  That is foolish and shortsighted.
2) Research and development of energy storage methods such as  batteries and fuel cells etc.  Governments and Private foundations can both play a role here.  If we can improve these technologies, carbon based fuels will become less completive on their own.  Increasing funding to universities for this type of research and also x-prize style competitions might be able to yield dramatic results.
3) Get serious on worldwide anti-poverty strategies.  Reducing poverty allow more people to be more adaptable to human change and increase the pool of creative individuals we can draw upon to solve our problems.  Serious anti-poverty means addressing the primary cause of poverty, failure of governments to protect private property rights.  It also means not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Developing nations may not have the luxury of all the environmental and labor regulations that a rich nation can afford.  Get them rich and they will get clean on their own.
4) Learn a lot more about the climate with the eventual goal being human regulation of the global climate.  So we can terraform the Earth when needed.  This is certainly a long-term goal, but we should begin with the end in mind.  Regardless of the particulars on the Global Warming debate, we can know for a certainty that the earth’s climate will change in ways that are not pleasant in the future.  Learning about the climate requires that good science be practiced.  The most effective break on bad science is a more scientifically literate populace.  Science and logic need to receive much greater focus in our schools, starting at the  elementary level.  How science is done, rather than rote learning of ‘what we know’ should be the primary focus.
5) Any legislation should support the results we actually want, rather than predetermined methods of achieving those results.  For example, if we want less gas used we should not mandate mgp rating on vehicles or provide tax breaks for specific vehicles, we should enact a gas tax.  We should never subsidize the implementation of specific technologies (wind, bio-fuels, etc.) but only subsidize the development of those technologies and perhaps alter the playing field (a carbon tax for example) to account for the real costs of carbon emissions.  The yield the most beneficial results, such leveling does need to be based upon ‘real’ costs, not simply putative measures.
So basically that is what I think.  Feel free to tell me how wrong I am!


Comment by Katinula

September 22, 2006 @ 9:05 am

Well done. I however take exception to “human success depends on overcoming nature”. Human success, and any organism for that matter, is dependant upon adapting to nature. We can and will never overcome nature. Whether its plagues, floods or an asteroid, nature will eventually overcome. Why play a stategy that is destined to fail (admittedly more than likely in geologic time scales rather than human). But eventually…we will lose. Adaptation is the only strategy.

Comment by Dave Justus

September 22, 2006 @ 9:34 am

Well, when it gets cold you can try to adapt if you want. I’ll turn up the heat and put on a coat.

Comment by tsykoduk

September 22, 2006 @ 11:24 am

I think that the climate shifts might very well be greater then the 2 – 3 degree shifts you postulate over the next century.

The “scary thing”, he added, was the rate of change now occurring in CO2 concentrations. In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years.

“The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don’t have an analogue in our records,” he said.

We are at a place where we cannot determine what is going to happen over the next 20, 30 or 100 years with the climate. All that we really know, is that it’s changing. Some parts of it are changing faster then they have in the last 800,000 years!

We do know several things.. The average world citizen pumps 24 pounds of C02 into the atmosphere a day. The earth can scrub about 9 pounds/person/day right now. That leaves us with a increase of 13 pounds per person per day. And the earth is not going to be able to catch up, because tomorrow, we out produce it by another 13 pounds. That’s 3.2 million tons per year that we are increasing the carbon levels by.

I think that the problem will not be the ‘slight increase’ in the sea levels (Check out this map for more information about rising sea levels). It’s going to be the effects of the increased energy into the climate.

a study published in Science showed that, while the number of tropical cyclones had not increased between 1970 and 2004, their strength had surged: Category-4 or -5 hurricanes where more than 50 percent more frequent in the second half of that period than in the first

Comment by Dave Justus

September 22, 2006 @ 11:50 am

There are mitigating factors though that we don’t know about. Some of the effects of increased CO2 will promote global warming, other effect will counter that trend. Here is a graph of various estimates under the assumption that no special actions are taken. I am convinced that even without ‘special action’ CO2 emissions will not rise as fast as projected due to technological changes. So the lower half of those estimates is my ‘worst case.’

Hurricanes go on a natural cycle, see this article for background. Global Warming may have a minor effect on hurricane strength, but far more signigant to the study you mention is a natural periodic cycle.

There are real environmental issues relating to hurricanes that should be looked into and are far more signifigant than global warming. Loss of coastal wetland and erosion of barrier islands makes these storms more damaging and expensive. That is not a global warming issue however.

The sea level map you cite has it’s minimum sea level rise at 1 meter. That is the worst case scenario and hence quite unlikely to happen. 11 to 80 cm is a resonable estimate (and about the closest we can guess which gives an idea of the degree of uncertainty present.) I would guess that less than 40 cm is most likely. This is not something that doesn’t matter at all, but there are numerous ways we can handle it if it comes to happen.

Comment by honestpartisan

September 22, 2006 @ 12:12 pm

I agree with most of what you wrote. Here’s where I don’t:

Do you mean 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius? There’s a pretty significant difference, not the least of which is that a comparable drop in average world temperature in the past occured when there was an ice age — a glacier over Washington State and New York. So an increase of that magnitude isn’t minor.

I disagree with the conclusion of your point 7, if not the facts. Yes, the Kyoto Protocols would be insufficient on their own to cool the earth to a point where I would feel safe. But insisting that any solution to global warming be all-or-nothing is a recipe for doing nothing. Addressing the problem will probably only be done with a series of incremental steps rather than in one fell swoop.

I sort of agree with the statement of point 9, but I don’t think that the relationship between economic growth and energy use is deterministic. It’s certainly possible to have economic growth and waste a lot of energy at the same time. Some minor, stupid things like using more efficient light bulbs or not blasting air conditioning in office buildings on days when it’s 60 degrees outside (like the building where I used to work!) aren’t necessary for there to be economic growth.

I agree that anti-poverty measures are a good thing, although I’m not sure what this has to do with global climate change. The poorest people on earth have a much smaller carbon footprint that the richest people on earth.

Comment by Dave Justus

September 22, 2006 @ 1:29 pm

Celsius. In talking science, use metric numbers.

I don’t know where you get 2-3 degree celcius cooler being ice age temperature. Glacial periods are about 5 degrees C cooler. In any event, warming and cooling are not necessarily the same thing, I submit that it is easier to deal with 5 degrees warmer than it is to deal with 5 degrees cooler. As I said, this will have signifigant impact, but ‘global meltdown’ or similar scare terms are an exaggeration.

As to Kyoto, I can’t find the source that I have seen before, but in general the consensus that I am aware of is that global warming will be about .15C less in 100 years if we enact it than if we don’t. That is very minor, at huge costs.

Energy efficiency is all well and good, and I support doing what we can there. There is no way to be efficient enough to have a growing economy without a growing energy supply though. Skeptical Optimist had a great post on this recently. Look at the numbers, then dispute me if you would like.

Anti-poverty, i.e. having wealth is crucial for dealing with any sort of change more effectively, including climate change. The more resources we have, the better we will be able to cope with anything. If the sea level were to rise half a meter tomorrow, the people in Bangledesh would have a lot more trouble than the people in Manhattan.

Comment by tsykoduk

September 22, 2006 @ 1:57 pm

1 meter is a pretty light estimate by everything that I have read… This article points out that 40% of the worlds ice will be gone by 2100, with an attendant rise in sea level of about 30 meters – with all of it gone by 2200 for a total sea level increase of 80 meters.

It also goes on to talk about the interglacial periods in the past, and how our current sea level is 2 – 30 meters lower then it was during past periods. And, we have been in a interglacial period for quite a while now. So, it stands to reason – even with out human intervention, we could be looking at an increase of 2 – 30 meters over the rest of this interglacial period.

As far as poverty being the issue here – The average US citizen unloads about 120 pounds of C02 a day, and the average mongolian releases about 15 – 20. Poor people tend to use a lot less C02 then rich.

Getting more countries richer seems like it would exacerbate the problem, not make it better!

We do need to overcome global poverty, but we must do it in a renewable way. Just giving everyone coal fired power plants and SUV’s will simply make the problem worse. We need to invest in clean energy, and push that technology out to the rest of the world – be it biofuels, nuclear power, cheap fusion, solar, or lots of hamsters on treadmills.

How much power do you think that a Hamster on a treadmill would produce? Perhaps I will have to experiment…


As far as hurricanes go – NOAA has this to say:

The strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth’s climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Although we cannot say at present whether more or fewer hurricanes will occur in the future with global warming, the hurricanes that do occur near the end of the 21st century are expected to be stronger and have significantly more intense rainfall than under present day climate conditions. This expectation (Figure 1) is based on an anticipated enhancement of energy available to the storms due to higher tropical sea surface temperatures.

The article that you quote is based on out dated science. In the past year, several studies have talked about this very topic.

Comment by Dave Justus

September 22, 2006 @ 3:59 pm

The article on sea level change you quoted didn’t say at all what it implied you did. It said if all the ice melted (which won’t happen) the maximum possible would be 80 meters. The article said 40% of Icelands Glaciers would be gone by 2100, all by 2200. Iceland is not the entire world.

here is almost the same article also from the USGS with a graph of the 2100 projected sea level rise, note that the scale is in inches and it tops out at 20.

As for the U.S. vs. Mongolia, it might surprise you that their is good evidence that the U.S. is a carbon sink not a carbon source. Certainly there is some controversy about this, and even more uncertainty about why and if it will continue to be that way, but that just highlight how little we know about the various feedback loops involved.

Hamsters on treadmills would probably releasse methane, another greenhouse gas.

I am well aware of all of the different studies on Hurricanes and Global Warming. We know that their are multi-decadal cycles (see page 9 of this for an informative graph that shows this clearly. 1970 was the start of a lull, hurricane activity began increasing greatly in the mid-90s. Global Temperature didn’t change that much in the first half of the 90s compared to the second half of the 90s, yet hurricane activity is markedly different.

I don’t doubt that global warming will increase hurricane strength, but I doubt that it is a primary driving factor and the differences will be reletively minor. Suffice it to say that their is a lot of controvery and I find the doomsday claims fairly unconvincing. Computer Modeling is a useful tool, but it is not evidence in and of itself.

Regardless, even if the global warming worst case scenarios on hurricanes are correct, as I pointed out there are better and easier ways to mitigate hurricane damage.

Comment by John DeWolfe

September 23, 2006 @ 11:56 pm

What I love about this post is that it’s eminently reasonable. You’ve started with a problem and tried to solve it, where most talk about global warming starts wiht a solution and tries to define the problem as only being solvable with that solution.

On the topic of Kyoto, bang on. Here in Canada it’s been a big bone of contention between the former Liberal government and the new Conservative one, and despite being a lefty I find myself siding with the conservatives. Environmentalists have fallen into the trap of “We have to do something – this is something – we have to do this.”

One role for government I think you’ve missed is as a first adopter of new technologies, to help create economies of scale that will make it feasible for private actors to buy in as well. A good example would be fueling infrastructures for alternatives to gasoline (and I’m talking about those that are feasible now, such as ethanol fuel, gasahol or compressed natural gas, not ideas still in development). Most governments have big enough fleets of vehicles that they could afford to have their own pumps, which they could then allow the public to use if the fuel turned out to be economical.

One more point – I agree that we need to get serious about global poverty, but I disagree that protection of private property is the most important barrier (it is an important one, of course). I think universal access to primary education, especially for girls, is more important. An educated population demands more of its government, and demands more of itself in terms of work ethic (which leads to greater prosperity).

Great post on the whole. I haven’t read your blog before, but after this I might have to start.

Comment by Katinula

September 25, 2006 @ 6:07 am

“Well, when it gets cold you can try to adapt if you want. I’ll turn up the heat and put on a coat.”

Rock on. doesn’t make it not cold outside though. In fact, your action is an adaptation.

Comment by Dave Justus

September 25, 2006 @ 9:46 am


Thanks for the kind words. As for fighting poverty, that would be an entirely new post to explore in depth, let me just say that although education is great, and I support it, all the education in the world doesn’ help you if you live under a totalitarian government that can confiscate anything you own. Such and environment, as well as corruption and taxation that is too high are the single biggest factors that keep nations mired in poverty.

As for Government being a ‘first adopter’ I don’t think that that is too big a deal, and for all the advantages we may get there are equal detriments, for example a dead end or unviable technology being adopted by the government not for sound reasons but because of lobbyist pressure.


If anything we do to alter our environment is an adaptation than I suppose you are correct. But in that case overcome nature and adapting to nature are synonyms. We change ‘nature’ all the time, and for our benefit. We should continue to do so.

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