[Note: Comments were accidentally turned off when this article was published earlier today. That is now an automatic feature that I have to override.]
A while back I sat across from my son and daughter-in-law and received the low-down on climate change. We are, I was told, entering the Sixth Great Extinction, and we are causing it. I didn’t get excited, and from a relaxed posture suggested they get ready to enjoy some Canadian wine. I am not worried about the planet.
But I had to worry about them. They are stressed about this, and there is nothing to be stressed about – at least – nothing within our control. Looking back over my life, I was taught as a child that we were under threat of annihilation by Soviet nuclear weapons. It was a real fear – they had us doing duck and cover drills in grade school. How is that for psychological conditioning? It could only have been to instill fear, as any fool knows that if a nuclear attack were a real thing and really happened, putting my head between my knees would only be useful in terms of kissing my little preteen ass goodbye.
But there seems to be a need to worry! I remember one day around or before 1990 sitting on a couch reading, and realizing that the Soviet threat was fake. I felt a palpable sense of relief as all off the accumulated childhood propaganda exited my brain. Shortly after that day the Soviet Union “collapsed,” and within a few years a new threat, global terrorism took its place. And then came Al Gore and Earth in the Balance. Fake, fake, fake, all of it, meant to keep us in a state of high tension, nothing more. It is a technique of governance and control.
I ran across an interesting article from a magazine called Colorado Serenity called Climate Balance? by Stephen Knapp. Unfortunately, it is not available online. Further, Knapp has no public credentials and does not respond to emails, so I won’t cite him as anything more than a capable writer. I will, however, go to the same sources he cited in the article.
First is a paper by Richard S.J. Tol, a guy with a lot of creds behind his name, too many to cite or trust. His paper is “The Economic Effects of Climate Change.” The actual body of the paper is 19 pages, but it is also another 19 pages of references and citations by others. That is typical of scientific papers, but atypical is the fact that Tol is the lone author. This could mean that others are backing away from him. That’s a good sign. A lone wolf is on the prowl?
First, a word about economics in relation to climate change. Tol writes about a problem that exists with any kind of prognostication or extrapolation. To me, extrapolation is a trap more than a tool, as certain assumptions are built into its use, among them no change and no reaction. Much of economics, for instance, is built around a tool known as the “demand curve” which forecasts how demand for a product will change with its price. Imagine that you are a sharpshooter, and that you are trying to hit a target 100 yards away. Imagine you flinch by as little as 1/10th of an inch when you fire – 100 yards away you miss by a full foot. That is the demand curve, that is extrapolation. To me it makes the whole science of economics essentially useless. But I will nonetheless describe the contents of Tol’s paper.
(This reminds me, back when wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone in 1995, food was abundant and competition scarce, so that the first litters of pups were large – as many as eight to a single female. The Chicken Little’s who wanted no wolves anywhere anytime used these numbers to project a park overrun by thousands of wolves in a decade. Today, 23 years later, there are probably around a hundred – the last official count I saw was 99 in 2015.)
Tol brought together 14 scholarly climate studies on six continents. Under “Findings and Implications” he writes,
A first area of agreement between these studies is that the welfare effect of a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gas emissions on the current economy is relatively small—a few percentage points of GDP. This kind of loss of output can look large or small, depending on context. From one perspective, it’s roughly equivalent to a year’s growth in the global economy—which suggests that over a century or so, the economic loss from climate change is not all that large.
I read that to mean “let’s not get too excited.” Remember, after all, that we are talking decades of future planet experience and are trying to hit a target 100 yards away.
Since Tol is an economist, he tries to interpret everything in monetary terms, and sadly, embraces a carbon tax. The European Union was charging $78 in 2009 for emission permits (per metric ton of carbon). He suggests a $25-$50 tax. He says many U.S. utilities are factoring a $15 tax even as now the U.S. has no policy regarding carbon. (Inaction is perhaps the wisest action.) In the end he urges a gradual phase-in, but interestingly, his conclusion is preceded by this:
The quantity and intensity of the research effort on the economic effects of climate change seems incommensurate with the perceived size of the climate problem, the expected costs of the solution, and the size of the existing research gaps. Politicians are proposing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on green-house gas emission reduction, and at present, economists cannot say with confidence whether this investment is too much or too little.
That seems, again, to suggest much ado about … not nothing, but at least very little.
Tol gives examples of extreme climate scenarios – alteration of ocean circulation patterns, such as the Gulf Stream that makes so much of Western Europe habitable; collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (leading to a rise in ocean levels of 5-6 meters “in a matter of centuries,” and a massive release of methane from melting permafrost, leading to rapid warming.
Exactly what would cause these sorts of changes or what effects they would have are not at all well understood, although the chance of any one of them happening seems low. But they do have the potential to happen relatively quickly, and if they did, the costs could be substantial.
Again, I am underwhelmed.
Carl Sagan was surprised, like most cosmologists and astronomers, to learn that the temperature on Venus was nearly 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier it was projected to have near Earth-like temps. Since he was unwilling to yield an inch to Immanuel Velikovsky, who predicted such a high temperature, he and others like him concluded that Venus had warmed to that degree due to a greenhouse effect. They just made that up, unscientifically, but to this day Venus is used as a roadmap of our future unless we make drastic changes in energy use.
The next matter is going to have to rely on Stephen Knapp, as I am unable to locate his source in this two-page magazine article.
“Sifting through 30 years of satellite imagery, researchers at Boston University have catalogued an unmistakable green boom across some 31 percent of the planet’s vegetated area, as opposed to a relative decrease in fecundity over about 3 percent of the Earth’s surface.”
Tol opens his paper by writing
Greenhouse gas emissions are fundamental both to the world’s energy system and to its food production. The production of CO2, the predominant gas implicated in climate change, is intrinsic to fossil fuel combustion; specifically, thermal energy is generated by breaking the chemical bonds in the carbohydrates oil, coal, and natural gas and oxidizing the components to CO2 and H2O. One cannot have cheap energy without carbon dioxide emissions. Similarly, methane (CH4) emissions, an important greenhouse gas in its own right, are necessary to prevent the build-up of hydrogen in anaerobic digestion and decomposition. One cannot have beef, mutton, dairy, or rice without methane emissions.
It would seem logical to follow that even a minuscule increase in CO2 in the atmosphere from its current .03% (.0003, expressed as a decimal) would have a fertilizing effect. If that Boston U paper is real, it would seem to be a logical outcome. I have not found it, however. Perhaps a reader can locate it for us.
Stephen Knapp cites the Tol paper to tell us that our having more (and more extreme and violent) weather events are “… anecdotal and completely unsupported by … evidence.” I could not find anything to that effect in the paper cited above and wondered if Knapp was referring to a different paper. His article has no footnotes.
Nonetheless, I did find this report, The Global Weather Extreme Weather Link by Madhav L. Khandekar, a 2013 report written for the Global Warming Policy Foundation. At 32 pages with many graphs and lots of large print, it is very accessible to the non-scientist. Here are two graphs presented, the first of which speaks for itself.
The importance of the second graph is this:
- Extreme weather events are an inherent aspect of the Earth’s climate system.
- Extreme weather events have occurred throughout the recorded history of the Earth’s climate.
- The Earth’s climate warmed quickly during the first half of the twentieth century. In North America, the decades of 1920s and 1930s, known as the dust bowl years, witnessed extremes of climate, with recurring droughts and heatwaves. During the period 1945–1977 when the mean temperature of the Earth declined by about 0.25°C, there were a number of notable (and tragic) extreme weather events. Most climate scientists attributed these extreme weather events to natural climate variability.
- Many climate scientists and environmentalists have attributed recent extreme weather events to the warming of the Earth’s climate. However, this attribution is not substantiated at this point in time. A careful assessment of many well-publicized extreme weather events of the last ten years suggests that they are due to natural climate variability.
- Hurricanes and tropical storms do not show increasing trends in frequency or in intensity.
- When closely examined there appears to be no increase in extreme weather events in recent years compared to the period 1945–77, when the Earth’s mean temperature was declining. The global warming/extreme weather link is more a perception than reality. The purported warming/extreme weather link has been fostered by increased and uncritical media attention to recent extreme weather events. The latest IPCC documents appear to de-emphasize the warming/extreme weather link by suggesting ‘low confidence’ in linking some of the events to recent warming of the climate.
- Cold weather extremes have definitely increased in recent years; for example, the severe winters in Europe (2012/13, 2011/12, 2009/10) and North America (2012/13, 2007/08). There have also been colder winters in parts of Asia (2012/13, 2002/03) and South America (2007, 2010 and 2013).
- The Earth’s climate may witness cold as well as warm weather extremes in future (between now and 2025).
Saving best for last, I find myself hoping that Knapp is citing something that can be independently verified. Here is what he wrote:
“Climate scientists have been puzzled of late to find atmospheric levels of carbon-12 (by far the most abundant Form of atmospheric carbon) beginning to follow below carefully calibrated expectations. An international team led by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently looked deeper into the mystery and were nothing short of astonished by what they saw. Plants – all plants, everywhere – have been begun gobbling up more carbon-12 and they use to, and not just because they can.
Sucking more carbon-12 out of the environment enables plants to photosynthesize more efficiently, making them larger, healthier, and faster at reproducing even more plants with an oversized appetite for carbon-12. It’s all very complicated and scientific, the upshot seems to be that rising CO2 levels may have triggered a hitherto unsuspected balancing mechanism. Functioning as far-flung parts of a single planet-spanning carbon filtration and sequestration system, Amazonian jungles and Ukrainian wheat fields and Arctic tundra could theoretically, voraciously and automatically scrub the atmosphere until it reaches whatever carbon level nature considers acceptable.”
I did indeed find this study, called Rising CO2 Leading to Changes in Land Plant Photosynthesis. What Knapp reports is indeed verified. However, its conclusion is just a little less gushing:
The increase in the efficiency of photosynthesis documented in this study has likely helped plants offset a portion of human-induced climate change by removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than they would have otherwise.
“The full implications are still far from clear, however, and any benefits may be more than offset by other negative changes, such as heat waves and extreme weather, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, and so on …”
Oh well. It is not the magic bullet described by Knapp. The upshot for me, however, is contained above in the part of this blog post above that dealt with weather extremes, finding no link between them and global warming, and no more of the extreme events now than ever in history. Some, like my son and daughter-in-law, like to worry in eschatological terms about collapsing ice sheets and loss of the Gulf Stream. There are always end-times forecasted from many quarters. Always.
For me it is a matter of preparing for some very excellent Canadian wine.