Climate Change: Are We Really Responsible?

The post that was under this title gave my reaction to a talk by Ken Caldeira, world class scientist. His patient response changed my whole view of the controversy – gotta change the focus.

Rearranging my thoughts,

Jim

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9 Responses to “Climate Change: Are We Really Responsible?”

  1. Mary Says:

    Well, why did you take your post and Caldeira’s response to it down? I thought blogs were supposed to be about the conversation! Is there another place to read it? Thanks!

  2. engrjim Says:

    Here’s the post.

    What’s Going On?

    Background
    For 250 years, we’ve been conducted a global scale, uncontrolled experiment by burning fossil fuels and putting a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. Since CO2 is a greenhouse gas, the experiment should eventually cause global warming with potentially disastrous climate change. Now we are seeing climate change – spring is coming earlier in lots of places, rainfall patterns are changing, very old forests are drying up and burning down, beetles are now living through the winter and destroying old forests.

    Implication
    The experiment is turning really bad and we have to stop it! That’s common sense, but it’s not science. Science is a sequence of laws and intermediate results that are tied together with logic, equations, and data. It forms a continuous chain reaching all the way back to stuff that the ancient greek philosophers argued passionately about. My understanding of human-caused global warming science is missing a link or two. Basic stuff, anybody in the field should be able to supply it. I just haven’t been able to find it yet.

    Questions
    1. In the famous graph of temperature vs. CO2 taken from the Greenland ice cores, temperature leads CO2. How could CO2 have caused the temperature rise? Moreover the temperature curve peaks before the CO2 curve – but it has to be the other way around. Something else is going on. What?

    2. There’s far more water vapor in the atmosphere than CO2. Why is CO2 so effective in changing the climate? This one’s not quite so puzzling. Maybe CO2 is a much more potent greenhouse gas than water vapor. (I haven’t been able to find the answer, a lot of other stuff, but not that.) Maybe there’s a really powerful positive feedback mechanism at work. I’d really like to see numbers on that. I’ve looked at a couple of such mechanisms and am not sure about how powerful they are, but I think they kicked in too late and are too small to cause enough amplification of the CO2’s effect.

    Source of Answers
    A few days ago, I went to a lecture by Ken Caldeira, world class climate scientist, winner of some important awards, and author of many papers. It was hosted by DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I thought it would be something like an academic lecture, presenting with methodology, results,
    theory, that sort of stuff – followed by a Q/A period that would last for something like the length of the lecture. If the speaker didn’t have an answer to relevant question, I expected him to say so and to say why not and what was being done to get the answer.

    It wasn’t what I expected. It felt more like a press conference. The talk was almost all high level results from a model that wasn’t described. Certainly he didn’t have to give the details of his algorithms, but he might have told what input parameters he was using and how they interacted. The Q/A period was limited to 4 questions. The whole thing just didn’t feel right.

    An Answer
    I was quick enough to get the first part of the first question asked. The answer was not satisfying: “The ocean heated up, releasing CO2 and a positive feedback process took over.” That answer does not imply an answer to the second half of the question, at all.

    Closing Thoughts
    Maybe the answer to the first question is that there’s some kind of systematic error in the ice core data – hard to see how it would happen, but it’s conceivable. That would make a really good answer. If that’s it, why didn’t Caldeira say so? He’d have to know. The question is so obvious that somebody must have looked into it.

    What is going on? More to the point, why?

  3. engrjim Says:

    Here’s my new take on the controversy. We have two squads of scientists, one with the trunk, one with the tail. Should we wait for them to do their thing and work their way to the belly? Or should we play the odds?

    Let’s see, we have a CO2 spike rising at like 10 billion tons a year and all the bad climate stuff that’s in the my comment, above. What’re the chances that all of them would happen at the same time? Winning lottery and trifecta on the same day?

    Now add in the ocean. Dissolved CO2 is probably killing all the coral and is endangering all the critters with shells. Odds now? Cheese moon? How lucky do you feel? (The Mask, classic scene)

    Let’s do everything we can to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere. Now!

    Cheers

    Jim

    PS Yes, they are all honorable people.

  4. engrjim Says:

    Oh crap. I’m a newbie to WordPress and can’t seem to get posts or comments in the right order. Here’s Dr. Caldeira’s reply.

    Comment:
    I was asked to give a talk that would be accessible by a broad range of people. All of the work I showed in that talk has been published in peer-reviewed journals. I had standard author (year) citations for all figures shown on my slides, so that the interested listener could track down the details if interested.

    The glacial-interglacial is much more complex than water heating up because it involves changes in ocean circulation (see work by Robbie Toggweiler). I was using the heating up to explain leads and lags, and that CO2 was not the climate forcing agent for climate change over glacial cycles (it was part of a feedback) but is today.

    In the glacial-interglacial transitions, changes in the distribution of sunlight drove climate change, so climate started changing first and then carbon-cycle feedbacks kicked in. Today, CO2 emissions are driving climate change, so of course we would expect CO2 changes to lead climate change.

    Water vapor is a component of climate feedbacks amplifying CO2 driven warming, but water vapor is not driving climate change.

  5. Mary Says:

    Hi Jim!

    Thanks for posting the whole thing! With your question about the leading temperature and Caldeira’s response, I now understand an important point that I never got before.

    I would like to mention a couple things. If Caldeira’s talk had really been a press conference, it would have been Ken and a bunch of reporters and Ken would have been speaking specifically about his own research. The talk he gave was attended by mostly scientists from a wide range of fields — even scientists won’t understand each other if they don’t speak in the common language of English. And generally, one scientist’s work wouldn’t cover as broad a range as what Caldeira did. Rest assured it was typical for a scientific overview talk. And I thought he did a really good job.

    And the “controversy” — I wouldn’t call it two “squads” of scientists. That implies the field is equally divided, and it’s not. The vast majority of climate scientists understand that humans are dumping CO2 into the environment and that’s causing all kinds of havoc with our climate. A small, *vocal* minority — the vast majority of them not climate scientists — disagree, for a huge number of reasons (each one probably has his or her own). These two “squads” aren’t even playing the same game — climate scientists are like a football team playing in their stadium, and the most vocal critics, some of whom are scientists by trade, are like a basketball team on the gridiron.

    It’s unfortunate that the general public doesn’t understand this. Cuz while they think climate scientists are “debating” whether it’s happening and is it caused by humans, the climate scientists are really debating how bad will it get and what can we do about it.

  6. Mary Says:

    p.s. Rarely do scientific lectures have Q&A periods that last the length of the talk.

  7. engrjim Says:

    Oh wow. Thank you for commenting again. I’m flattered.

    Here are my problems with the answers
    1. The circulation thing seems like a red herring.
    2. Why did the temperature peak before the CO2? It seems to me that the gain of the system had to be really carefully balanced to get the curve we have. A good dose of positive feedback would make a spike. Several mechanisms, as we know we have: stairsteps.
    Oops. I just went back and reread his response. He said carbon cycle feedbacks, not positive feedbacks. Ok. So it’s a linear function, probably negative feedback, maybe no feedback at all. The curves sure look that way. But what about the melting sea ice and permafrost? Don’t tell me, their effects are negated by that of the new growing green stuff. That should satisfy people who are willing to listen.
    3. I don’t mean to sound as if I’m asking what was before the big bang, but changes in solar output as a cause for the interglacial temperature rise sounds to me like deus ex machina. (I’ve heard the sunspot argument for our innocence in global warming, but it’s easy to refute that as an answer to our current warming or the to the ice core warmings – different arguments, though.)

    No, you’re right. My experience with news conferences is really limited. I have been to public scientific lectures, though, that were as I described. I can understand that Dr. Caldeira is really busy and can’t take a lot of time to present stuff to the public. Somebody has to do it, though. Do it well, and soon. I was surprised at the number of nods and smiles when I asked my question.

    (In case you haven’t noticed, this is written like a newspaper article: you can stop any time you get bored and only miss stuff that’s less important than you’ve read.)

    After the lecture, I had coffee, then lunch with the guy who’d been sitting next to me. Early on, he called me “one of us.” He’s intelligent, a successful buisnesman, shares a lot of intrests and knows as many of the arguments at I do; more on his side, fewer on mine. We had a lot of fun arguing, but carefully respecting the other’s opinion. A great guy. Refreshing. Anyhow, there are way too many good people out there who share his opinions.

    I read the article in the New York Times Review of Books and, as expected, found it erudite, well reasoned, and informative. I do have one huge reservation. How can he presume to put a price on likely extinction of migratory birds that are starving to death because the life cycle of their food comes earlier with the coming of Spring or on all the unknown species in the rain forests that will go extinct? My wife says there’s an article somewhere else in the paper that says he’s an unbeliever in ACC, but she’ll have to do some searching to find a link again. That’s hard to believe when he spent so much of the piece I did read saying how we could figure out the best way to fix it.

    Blogspot, not yet. Thanks for the recommendation. Actually though, I do have a guru buddy who will come help soon. If he can’t resolve the problem, maybe he can help me with Blogspot.

    Well, thank you all for coming. (I hope somebody else will read the blog.) I’m sorry. We’re out of time and I have an urgent, unexpected appointment. A sister, whom I haven’t seen in many years showed up for a visit and I have to pick her up at the airport.

    Cheers

    Jim

  8. Dave Says:

    Well Jim. we have had this conversation by phone but I will post this as requested.
    The issue of Climate Change/Global Warming is obviously very controversial. My education and knowledge is limited on the subject but as usual opinions exsist.
    First and foremost God is in control of our universe, we are not. We have not been good stewards of our earth and we need to become that. Several ways of accomplishing the goal come to mind.
    1. Strong and aggressive application of Solar, hydro, wind and
    nuclear power.
    2. A user friendly transportation system that would reduce or
    eliminate the need to use fossil fuels.
    3. Engineer and develope a personal vehicle that will satisfy the
    the needs of the public AND reduce or eliminate the use of
    fossil fuels.
    These are by no means the only answers, however my opinion is that it is a starting point. There will be a great deal of resistance to these ideas from every day people and politicians.

  9. engrjim Says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that those are some of the things we need to do – and that we’ll get a lot of resistance from too many people, especially when they realize that it’ll cost something to get stuff done. That’s my purpose with the blog – to get information out there in hopes that people will learn about the constraints on what needs to be done and what can be done. Right now, I’m going to concentrate on the limitations of solar and wind power. A study on the largest Texas power grid, about a third of the state, shows that even in best-case conditions solar power can provide at most 12-15% of the power needs. More in the next post.

    Here are some links to interesting environmental stuff:

    A good blog –
    http://gristmill.grist.org/kingdom/climate-energy

    Resurgence in nuclear power –
    http://www.grist.org/article/2009-04-19-nuclear-power-iaea/

    Electric cars –
    http://www.grist.org/article/who-will-reincarnate-the-electric-car

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