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August 05, 2019

Stopping Climate Change Would Be an Unnatural Act

But Climate Change IS an Existential Issue

Is the climate changing? Yes, of course. 20,000 years ago there was a mile of ice over the top of 4,000 foot Mt. Mansfield in Vermont. Long before that, there was no ice at the earth’s poles. This cycle has repeated many times. Change is what climate does.

Are the oceans rising? Until about 12,000 years ago, the seas were so low that you could walk on dry land from Siberia to Alaska, from Europe to Great Britain, and from Asia to Australia. Many species including ours crossed these land bridges until they were submerged under rising seas. (read all about land bridges on Wikipedia)

The children – and even adults who should know better – who are demanding that climate change be stopped are bound to be disappointed. The belief that climate only changes because of what we humans do is as much climate change denial as claiming that the climate isn’t changing at all. BTW, an unchanging climate was the “scientific consensus” until the early 1800s, despite the inconvenient fact of marine fossils on top of mountains which da Vinci had noted.

Is the earth warming now? Yesterday I hear an announcer on BBC say that this past July was the hottest the earth has ever known. The story which followed the breathless announcement was more accurate ”the warmest since record keeping began…” When did record keeping begin? About two hundred years ago in some places. That’s a blink of the eye to climate. There was a “little ice age” starting at about 1300. Temperatures were at a 4000-years MINIMUM in about 1600 before they started to rise again. By 1850 temperatures had recovered to their level before the little ice age. (We know this not from records people kept but from fossil and geological evidence). Since then temperatures have generally resumed rising in their usual saw-toothed pattern.

If temperatures are continuing to rise from the big ice age minimum 35,000 years ago, we would expect new high records to be set more often than new low records. In scientific terms, the evidence is not inconsistent with continuing global warming. On the other hand, the evidence is also not inconsistent with the theory of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

To add to the ambiguity, the theory that whatever caused the ice age to end (we really don’t know what that was) is still warming the earth and the theory that green house gas emissions are accelerating warming are not mutually incompatible. Both can be true at the same time.

NASA makes a circumstantial case for anthropogenic forcing of warming: “As the Earth moved out of ice ages over the past million years, the global temperature rose a total of 4 to 7 degrees Celsius over about 5,000 years. In the past century alone, the temperature has climbed 0.7 degrees Celsius, roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.”

Unfortunately for those of us who crave certainty, the circumstantial case is scarcely conclusive. Look at the graph below (technical detail here).

Halocene climate chnage

Notice that no matter what measure you use (different color lines), temperature doesn’t go up and down smoothly; therefor it doesn’t make sense to compare the rate of increase in the last century to the average rate of increase. It should be compared to other periods of rapid increase. There were many other century-long spikes up and spikes down. In this context the slope of the up spike in the last century doesn’t seem out-of-scale. In other words, the fast rate of recent warming is not inconsistent with the theory that past “natural” trends are responsible for what we’re observing now. On the other hand (what NASA should’ve said to be more scientific), the last century’s rapid temperature rise coinciding with a rise in greenhouse gasses is not incompatible with the theory of anthropogenic forcing.

Unfortunately, although there are many theories, there is no conclusive evidence (or even a “scientific consensus”) for why the earth’s temperature was oscillating long before the first man lit the first anthropogenic fire. Without understanding the magnitude of the natural contribution to climate change, we simply don’t know our own contribution to current change. Science is not done by consensus; breakthroughs usually struggle against the fashionable consensus.  The consensus is especially suspect at a time when our universities are enmeshed in political correctness.  Models of the future are interesting but prove nothing except that people can write computer programs which reflect their own biases.

Since anthropogenic activity may be and may continue to be a major cause of warming and because rapid warming means rapid sea level rise (almost certainly true), why shouldn’t we have an all-out effort for decarbonization? I thought you’d never ask.

There are four major possibilities for causes and effects of climate change:

  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on the amount of greenhouse gasses (ghg) we put in the atmosphere (minus what plants can absorb), AND the increase will slow or stop if ghg emissions are drastically reduced;
  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on the amount of ghg we put in the atmosphere (minus what plants can absorb) ,BUT the level of ghg emissions is already so high that we’re doomed to rising temperatures even if we cut emissions drastically;
  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on natural causes, and the warming cycle will continue for a long time no matter what we do;
  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on natural causes; but this warming cycle is almost over so there’s nothing to worry about.

If #1 is mainly true (and it may be), we do need a real decarbonization effort. Of course that means not just virtue-signaling like carbon offsets but also rapid development of carbon-free energy sources like nuclear and hydro as well as wind (no matter who’s ridgeline or sea-view it’s on), solar, and energy storage. Very, very expensive, not without trade-offs, but, if it’s needed…

If #2 or #3 is true, our resources must go to mitigating the effect of changing temperatures and rising sea levels and preparing for changing agriculture and mass migrations. Newly thawed regions must become both habitable and productive. Ironically cheap fossil fuels help provide resources for this effort. What’s indubitably true is that too many people live dangerously close to the sea even if it only rises during storms.

If #4 is true, we get a free pass for business as usual and renewables should compete in the marketplace with fossil fuels and people be helped out of poverty and hunger as fast as possible.

The existential threat of climate change is exacerbated when we switch from science to propaganda in order to get people to act the way we think they ought to. We need scientific resources devoted to understanding the causes (and likely future of natural climate change).  We need to encourage scientific dissent to prevailing orthodoxies; it’s too dangerous not to. We need to educate our children in science and natural history (and logic!), not just teach them how to protest what they don’t understand.

We do have to make choices based on incomplete information and theory; that’s the way the world is. We should be redeveloping nuclear power, developing new hydro sites, and trying to make wind and solar more useful by solving energy storage problems; and we must learn to deal with a climate which won’t stop changing.


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