View Full Version : See, this is why Climate Policy is hard...

DC Meatloaf
13th May 2004, 06:14
So I just saw this fascinating article (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/13/science/13DARK.html?ex=1399780800&en=9012d4b0886e2d1f&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND) in [i]The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com) describing research (some old and getting a new look, some relatively recent) that has noted pretty dramatic dimming of the sun's radiation hitting earth of between 10% and 37% in the last half of last century. The assumed cause is pollution, but the effect isn't quite clear. From the article:"There could be a big gorilla sitting on the dining table, and we didn't know about it," said Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at the University of California, San Diego. "There are many, many issues that it raises."

Dr. James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, said that scientists had long known that pollution particles reflected some sunlight, but that they were now realizing the magnitude of the effect.

"It's occurred over a long time period," Dr. Hansen said. "So it's not something that, perhaps, jumps out at you as a person in the street. But it's a large effect."

Satellite measurements show that the sun remains as bright as ever, but that less and less sunlight has been making it through the atmosphere to the ground.

Pollution dims sunlight in two ways, scientists theorize. Some light bounces off soot particles in the air and goes back into outer space. The pollution also causes more water droplets to condense out of air, leading to thicker, darker clouds, which also block more light. For that reason, the dimming appears to be more pronounced on cloudy days than sunny ones. Some less polluted regions have had little or no dimming.

The dynamics of global dimming are not completely understood. Antarctica, which would be expected to have clean air, has also dimmed.

"In general, we don't really understand this thing that's going on," said Dr. Shabtai Cohen, a scientist in the Israeli Agriculture Ministry who has studied dimming for a decade. "And we don't have the whole story."So what's the point of bringing this up? Well, much of the impetus for climate change policy -- and I'm thinking specifically of the especially contentious debate surrounding the Kyoto protocol -- comes from the particularly dire forecasts some climate models generate when asked to simulate into the future the global warming observed in the past. These models have been refined over the years, but they are enormously complex and incredibly computationally-intensive. In fact, we've only just started bringing machines online that have the computational power, storage, and bandwidth to even begin to think about modeling climate at any meaningful resolution (the Japanese Earth Simulator is currently the best machine for the job, but the US Dept of Energy just announced they're building an even faster machine that will be online in two years). Even with all this computing power, however (and we're talking about 40 trillion calculations per second), the models are only as good as their inputs. And with something as complex as climate -- where variables constantly interact with each other, often in unpredictable ways -- small changes in the inputs can equal absolutely enormous changes in the forecast that results.

Nevertheless, the forecasts were sufficiently scary to put a lot of pressure on policymakers worldwide to do something. However, the economic cost of acting in a way that the models suggested would mitigate any future problems turned out to be enormous, especially for developed countries like the US. So, surprise surprise, the policymakers looked to the scientists and said, "Doing this would cost a whole lot of money and might even be a hit to our economy so severe it may take generations to recover. How sure are you of your forecasts?"

And they responded, "um, pretty sure."

And that was pretty much that. Kyoto got rejected by the US Senate 97-0, and heaps of scorn were poured upon the US for any number of different reasons, but primarily for not taking the problem seriously enough -- for, in essence, not having faith in the models.

Well, now it turns out, if this article is to be believed, that one of those important inputs into the models -- solar radiation -- may have been off by as much as 37 percent. In addition, the effect of the dimming on all of the other variables in the model hasn't been characterized and so, presumably, isn't reflected in the model. And that's just the stuff -- to borrow a Rumsfeldian phrase -- that we now know we don't know. Who knows about all the unknown unknowns? :)

So, my question is, what's a policymaker to do? One of the arguments for acting even with the uncertainty in the models is that, because the costs of inaction are potentially so high, we should lower our threshold concerning evidence and just assume we're doing the right thing. But, here in the US, the argument was flipped. The costs of action were so demonstrably high that we demanded much more certainty from the models before acting. Does the US still deserve scorn for that position, especially in light of this piece of news?

As someone who at various times in my life has crafted policy, I'd love to hear some thoughts (if I haven't bored you all to tears...). :)

High Wing Drifter
13th May 2004, 06:57
I think a great deal of the impasse can be attributed to computing power. We know we have them, and that we should be able to get the answer. So instead of doing something about the problem, we fiddle with algorithms and argue over maths as model after model is generated. Never, incidently, providing the answer we want.

Personally I can't detect any change in the weather, but I would daft to believe that burning oil does not pollute.

13th May 2004, 07:50
The eight hottest years on record have occured in the last decade.

If that's not bleedin' obvious, I don't know what is.

You may not be able to detect anything changing in your patch, but just watch the news every summer and see the increasing incidence of extreme weather events from all that extra energy in the system. Hurricanes/Tornados/Severe Flooding etc.

I DO remember a different climate in my youth, only twenty years ago or so. School closures due to snow were a regular occurance in my childhood patch in East Anglia. Don't think that's happened in the last ten years.

Cheers, SSS

13th May 2004, 08:05
The problem with climate predictions, temperatures and suchlike is that we have been recording things only for the last couple of minutes, geologically speaking and we simply may not have enough information to make the progression.

For example, if I ask the question, "What comes next in this sequence," ...

1, 2, _, _,

The answer might be 3, 4 or it could be 4, 8 or it might even be 12, 112. It all depends on the information I haven't given. Part of the problem is that we can predict by using only the information we do have and the other part is that we can only build our calculating devices the same way ... based on what we know. Also, we may not even have any idea that there is information missing at all.

It's what we don't know that will probably provide the key to all this. Who knows ... maybe it's perfectly normal for the Thames to freeze over for fifty years in a row every 3,000 years.

13th May 2004, 08:12
I'm probably being thick but. The article was concerned with the days getting dimmer (less bright because of less sunlight I assume), presumably at the Earth's surface. But the same amount of energy is actually reaching the outer reaches of the Earth's atmosphere (again assumed but I think reasonably,since the measurements quoted were from satellites and they must have been operating above the atmosphere).

Visible light is one of the componenets of the energy arriving from the sun. So here we have the same amount of energy going into the start of the system (at the top of the atmosphere) and less coming out at the other end (arriving at the Earth's surface).
Some, but not all, of the missing energy was being reflected so the rest must be being retained within the Earths atmosphere. The basis of the global warming thesis is that the extra pollutants (some visible, such as soot, some not, such as CO2) are absorbing energy and retaining it as heat in the atmosphere, and some of this absorbed energy would originally have been in the visible spectrum.

So global warming provides an explanation of the 'missing' light.

(Incidentally SSS, to play devil's advocate no, the eight hotest years etc. doesn't make it totally obvious. Statistical anomalies do occur - the coin COULD turn up heads 16 times in a row. Although I totally agree it is happening and the weather is changing).

13th May 2004, 08:19
Agree with SSS; the effects of global waming are all around us. Winters without snow in Scotland are common these days.

Now even if you prefer to believe the "global dimming" theory - well, that's caused by pollution too. So either way you have a no-brainer compelling argument for cutting pollution.

Whichever way you look at it, reducing pollution can hardly be a bad thing.

No, the models are not perfect. They can't be - there are too many complex factors involved. But that's why our leaders get paid the big bucks - for making important decisions based on incomplete information.

Back in 1986 some engineers at NASA thought there might be a problem with the rubber 'O' ring seals on the space shuttle solid rocket boosters. They had some figures showing that the number of 'O' ring erosion incidents increased as the temperature went down.

The engineers were concerned that the January 28 Challenger launch was going to take place in much lower temperatures than any previous launch. The model wasn't perfect - how could it be - but the risk was there for all to see, so they recommended delaying the launch.

And the NASA administrators said: "Doing this would cost a whole lot of money. How sure are you of your forecasts?"

And they responded, "um, pretty sure."

And we all know what happened next. :rolleyes:

13th May 2004, 08:24
Ok, it's bleedin' obvious that SOMETHING is changing in the short term, be it through cyclicity or unique event ;) I studied Geology/Oceanography at University so climate change is of great interest to me.

Saw an interesting "Horizon" last night on a similar topic, anyone else?

In a nutshell : was primarily concerned with the Gulf Stream, and how if the earth continues to warm as it currently is, the increase in fresh water from melting ice and Northern Hemisphere rainfall will disrupt the salinity balance that drives this oceanic current.

Hence paradoxically whilst the earth may be warming, Britain and Northern Europe may rapidly become an icebox if this system shuts down any time soon.

Regarding dimming - the surface of Venus is a pretty dark place and look what the temperatures are like there.

Cheers, SSS

13th May 2004, 08:31
What was surprising to me in the aftermath of Kyoto was how the US decision stood out among the rest of the developed world - we all had the same set of information, but the US, with the former governor of Texas as president, elected emphatically not to sign up. I have recently put some of my funds' money into a company which makes solar power roofing plastic - like solar panels, but easier to instal and with the advantage that the customer can sell power into the local network when the factory is not using it. This is a US company, with a few reference sites in places like LA - but they have decided to come to Europe to seek the next stage of growth because their own home country is not regarded as supportive of initiatives like theirs.

13th May 2004, 10:09
I live in Cebu in the Philippines and in the morning flick between the news channels on TV - CNN, BBC World, Fox and ABC (Australia). This morning was a brief item prolly on ABC that some Aussie scientist(s) have decided or theorized or postulated that the Earth is resistant to any effects from Global warming or Greenhouse effect. I personaly think and have thought for years that this is prolly right.

(BTW I also listen to Wogan on my laptop when I am working or surfing or pruning. Not that I miss UK at all..........)


13th May 2004, 10:12
Basil : Yeah, they do have fun with those programmes!

Re: Euro Oil Futures, I think US based alternative energy startups may also be worth a punt. When the oil starts getting more expensive (way more expensive) in the next few decades there's going to be an almighty kerfuffle and probably another war or two over energy resources. At some point alternative fuels are going to be big business, increasingly the oil giants like Shell are funnelling millions into such diversification (as well as drastically overstating their oil reserves, ahem).

Just out of interest for the US folks on here (and this is NOT a dig!) - does native news coverage of the increased incidence of hurricanes/tropical storms/tidal floodings on the western seaboard and tornados and the like across the south ever get associated with global warming? Genuinely interested as such connections crop up all the time over here in Euroland where global warming is generally accepted by the media and populace alike. Or is it just labelled "freak weather"?

Cheers, SSS

13th May 2004, 10:27
have decided or theorized or postulated that the Earth is resistant to any effects from Global warming or Greenhouse effect. I personaly think and have thought for years that this is prolly right. Lofty if we're going to refuse to accept the climate models because they aren't accurate to a zillion decimal places, then I think we need a a more compelling argument in favour of continuing to pump out the pollution than "prolly right" :confused:

13th May 2004, 10:42

Didn't take long for the bashers to start an affray....eh?

I did not attempt to present any argument balanced or otherwise, merely to advise others posting on this forum of what I heard on TV only this morning. Then I offered my personal thought (opinion) that it's prolly right. A number of obviously very well read people have posted the idea that no one knows anyway whether greenhouse effect is really any effect at all, and I have heard and read enough over the years to accept that differing views on this are doubtful of either side; as was said twice "um, pretty sure"

You quoted me selectively, but since the full text of my post is above, I will not bother to repeat.

Send Clowns
13th May 2004, 12:15
We certainly can't start to speculate on the likely future climate based on records. The hottest summers on record may be recent, but records only extend back towards the last serious cold period (I won't say "mini ice age", since we are still in an ice age, albeit an interglacial period). Are we still warming up to a more normal, or perhaps a local high-temperature time, from a time when people skated on the Thames, and held ox roasts on the ice?

I don't remember it, but apparently there was concern in the 1970s about global cooling, as a short-term drop in mean world temperature was recorded.


You're not being thick, but you have made a fundamental mistake concerning the nature of global warming. You state thatThe basis of the global warming thesis is that the extra pollutants (some visible, such as soot, some not, such as CO2) are absorbing energy and retaining it as heat in the atmosphere, and some of this absorbed energy would originally have been in the visible spectrumwhich is not correct at all. The basis of global warming is the "greenhouse effect". Light arriving from the sun at a broad range of frequencies, averaging quite high in the visible spectrum is absorbed by the ground (importantly the sea absorbs poorly, snow and cloud reflect and the air absorbs almost nothing). The Earth is warmed by this. The Earth then re-radiates the energy (the same amount, or the surface would warm up or cool down) but at much lower frequencies, averaging well into the infra-red, nothing in the visible or the ultra-violet. These long wavelengths are much more readily absorbed in the atmosphere, by CO2, water, methane, CFCs etc. The whole point is that the absorbtion is higher with outgoing radiation than incoming, due to the different wavelegth.

I agree with you that the weather is changing. However I would add that the weather has been changing ever since the Earth stabilised enough to have defined climate.

Flip Flop Flyer
13th May 2004, 13:06
Agree with SC; the weather has changed dramatically over time without human influence. Not much in the way of pollution during the Iceage 20K years ago .....

However, the problem to my mind is whether or not our climate is being affected for the worse by pollution. Based on simple logic, the answer would be "yes". Ever smelled the inside holding tank at a chemical factory, or fancied sticking your nose down the chimney of a steel factory and take a deep breath? Thought not, 'cause it'll probably be lethal. We used to dump all kinds of chemicals on land, and sure enough it came back to haunt us years later. Then we started dumping it in the oceans, and the effects of that is showing in the increased amounts of heavy metals in fish stock. Maybe the cod stock will recover in Europe from the years of over fishing, but it may yet be extinct by pollution.

In my opinion, it should be the policy of every responsible government to reduce pollution as much as possible. However, quite a few nations are more keen to please business and thus voters (and thus retaining their seats in parliament) than preserving our planet and handing it over in a somewhat functional order for the coming generations. Vast resources are spent for no good reason, simply because some governments have not introduced measures that will either make it profitable to save on energy, or more likely measures that will make it very expensive to waste energy. And yes, I am indeed thinking the US here who spend around 50% of the worlds energy resources. But would any US president survive if the fuel prices went up to European levels?

In essence, energy should not be priced based solely on it's core value, but also on the damage it causes. That is, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways to reduce energy spending.

And don't even get me started on business getting away with polluting our planet, because governements ain't got the guts to stand up to them when they threathen to close down shop and put vast numbers of workers on the street. Though shit; you messed the place up - you pay for it. End of story.

13th May 2004, 13:26
FFF, with reference to energy being priced according to the damage it causes there was a prog on the radio yesterday. Apparently you can choose to 'buy' your electricity specifically from a wind-generated source - obviously greener and likely to encourage development. (And before everyone shouts no, the electricity you use is not wired direct from a wind-farm; what happens is the generator guarantees to put enough into the grid to cover what you are using).

On the same program there were also bits about solar water heating (some bloke was reporting water from his solar panel at 60C in January, with snow on the ground) and a 'do it yourself' wind genrator kit (it involved a pole about 3 metres high attached to the end wall of your house, like a tv aerial, with a wind generator on it; estimated to supply about 30% of average use and you can sell any surplus to the grid, they were pricing them about £1000).

13th May 2004, 13:39
Indeed, the weather has changed dramatically over time, but most natural cycles of climate change are over geologically significant periods of time, looooong frequency.

Of course, there are in the earth's history sudden, infrequent events that rapidly change the earth's climate through external inputs to the system or dramatic activity on Earth. Meteors, massive volcanic activity, and so forth.

Mankind's atmospheric alterations over the last fifty/next fifty years will slide fairly effortlessly into the latter category.

We are but a blip, but we're a very big blip. Not many species can claim to have altered their climate inside one or two generations. It took the first bacteria a very long time to alter their surrounds.

I'm sure most of us will notice the differences in world climate between our childhood and our old age.

Interesting times in which we live, SSS

13th May 2004, 13:49
I don't wish to bury my head in the sand or anything, but where's the proof?

Do you/we believe everything we read in the newspaper?

Do we believe everything/anything a scientist says without proof?

Remember the "Um, pretty sure" from earlier.

These scientists are trained to not give a definite and positive predictive (or even historical) analysis of anything. PROOF is the only way they go, there ain't none, and until there is it is all pissing in the wind.

The prophets of doom have been at it for so many years now and come up with no proof of anything.

So if some one of you knows something the so-called experts don't please tell them. The worst vacilators in the world are scientists, it's their training.


13th May 2004, 14:02
I refer you to earlier evidence regarding the hottest years on record, and the fact that for those in certain parts of the world (maybe not yours) there have been clear and very apparent changes inside recent living memory. These may be anecdotal but the response to "where's the evidence then?" is "I can see it all around me every year with my own eyes, and in the news from other parts of the planet".

This sort of decade-long trend has not happened in mankind's recorded history. As SC says in geological terms that's nothing but it's all we've got to go on, and what is happening now is unique within that timeframe.

You can argue the toss about whether we've caused it but are you actually saying that there's no significant changes to the climate occuring? Come back in fifty years and say that! ;)

Cheers, SSS

Send Clowns
13th May 2004, 14:07
SSSIndeed, the weather has changed dramatically over time, but most natural cycles of climate change are over geologically significant periods of time, looooong frequency. This is not true. The weather probably naturally changes on every timescale. Chaos theory suggests that it must, although there may be periods of apparent stability. This fits with the observed climatic patterns in recorded data. Unfortunately short-term variations are unlikely to be shown in the usual geological data; that is why you use the term 'geologically significant', because they are periods that can be studied in geological data. The closest you could come to pre-historic information is dendrochronology to look back a few thousand years. Using petrified wood certain periods could be studied millions of years ago, but only on their own terms, absolute studies would be difficult.

13th May 2004, 14:22

In the UK the use of electricity, natural gas, oil and coal all have a government tax attached. This is called the Climate Change Levy. This amounts to a set number of pence per kilowatt hour. For example on electricity it is 0.43p/kwh and on gas it is 0.15p/kwh. This is paid to the Customs and Excise. There are ways of avoiding this charge,

1) It is not paid by anyone paying VAT on the fuel at 5%. This is most usually domestic properties and charities.
2) As FFF says agreeing to pay a premium to acquire “green” electricity from your supplier. The premium is in most cases the same as the CCL but as many companies and government departments have been assigned certain targets in this area it is essential for them to comply.
3) Certain industries are exempt, for example, horticulture. This is because the nature of the business is such that it was decided that this industry is responsible for absorbing more carbon and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it creates from the use of electricity and gas.
4) Your company can plant a forest of a certain size as determined by the size of the company’s carbon emissions. Forests are seen as “carbon sinks”.

As to solar heating/power, in a study in 2000 it was determined that if every house and business property covered 50% of their roof area with the panelling available back then (technology has moved on so far in the last 4 years) then the demand from the National Grid for electricity would drop by between over 40%.



13th May 2004, 14:28

You state that it's not true that most cycles of climate change are over geologic time, that's an awfully bold statement. How do you explain Milankovitch cyclicity? The geologic record is all we have to go on over the long term and there is clear cyclicity in that record. It also records sudden cataclysmic events and, for the duration of the fossil record, information on global environment (atmospheric elemental ratios, biodiversity, etc.).

In the short term, we have ice cores and suchlike. In the very short term, we have recorded data from human history. Both are narrow enough in scale to show up cyclic climate change over decades. There is nothing comparable to the present day situation in the latter, unless you can provide it for us. Are you aware of any in the former?

Cheers, SSS

Send Clowns
13th May 2004, 16:30
I did not say that there were no climate change cycles over geological time, I am quite aware of the Milankovitch cycles. What I said was that it was not true that "...but most natural cycles of climate change are over geologically significant periods of time...". It has been shown through ice-core and dendrochronological studies that the climatic variation occurs to the same degree however short a time period is chosen. There are changes in ice cores (one example of the data - click the link "Ice Core Timeline" then "Climate Change" (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/warnings/stories/)) that are of a very short timescales, certainly approaching the resolution of the technique.