Friday, October 19, 2007

Matt 24 watch, 35: Climate and energy issues in light of Mr Gore's Nobel Prize

Yesterday, an esteemed colleague asked me to comment on an interesting development, whereby an inventor in Florida stumbled on to a way to make saltwater burn like paraffin!

(Yes, it's not April 1: this is for real. Mr John Kanzius' related proposed Cancer cure is also in principle doable -- similar approaches using specifically tuned lasers and dyes that lodge in tumours have been developed.)

Of course, there is a trick to it: he is apparently using a very powerful radio frequency field to break up water molecules, which releases the very flammable hydrogen -- observe the kilowatt range power meter on his radio apparatus; about the power level of a domestic iron. [NB: If this can be done more efficiently than using the more familiar electrolysis, that may indeed be a breakthrough. But then, that means we need to find low-cost sources of vast quantities of electrical energy, e.g. as with Montserrat's hopes to harness geothermal energy.]

All of this brings us back to the issues put on the table by the recent award of the Nobel Prize to Mr Gore for the Documentary, An Inconvenient Truth [jointly with the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change].

The Norwegian Prize Committee believes that climate-change related issues will dominate international stress lines in the upcoming century so Mr Gore has been rewarded for putting the issue squarely before the world public.

Just one fly in the sweet-smelling ointment, though.

At the same time, a Judge in Britain has found eleven critical flaws in the film, remarking:

In order for the film to be shown [in schools], the Government must first amend their Guidance Notes to Teachers to make clear that 1.) The Film is a political work and promotes only one side of the argument. 2.) If teachers present the Film without making this plain they may be in breach of section 406 of the Education Act 1996 and guilty of political indoctrination. 3.) Eleven inaccuracies have to be specifically drawn to the attention of school children.

The inaccuracies are:

* The film claims that melting snows on Mount Kilimanjaro evidence global warming. The Government’s expert was forced to concede that this is not correct.

* The film suggests that evidence from ice cores proves that rising CO2 causes temperature increases over 650,000 years. The Court found that the film was misleading: over that period the rises in CO2 lagged behind the temperature rises by 800-2000 years.

* The film uses emotive images of Hurricane Katrina and suggests that this has been caused by global warming. The Government’s expert had to accept that it was “not possible” to attribute one-off events to global warming.

* The film shows the drying up of Lake Chad and claims that this was caused by global warming. The Government’s expert had to accept that this was not the case.

* The film claims that a study showed that polar bears had drowned due to disappearing arctic ice. It turned out that Mr Gore had misread the study: in fact four polar bears drowned and this was because of a particularly violent storm.

* The film threatens that global warming could stop the Gulf Stream throwing Europe into an ice age: the Claimant’s evidence was that this was a scientific impossibility.

* The film blames global warming for species losses including coral reef bleaching. The Government could not find any evidence to support this claim.

* The film suggests that the Greenland ice covering could melt causing sea levels to rise dangerously. The evidence is that Greenland will not melt for millennia.

* The film suggests that the Antarctic ice covering is melting, the evidence was that it is in fact increasing.

* The film suggests that sea levels could rise by 7m causing the displacement of millions of people. In fact the evidence is that sea levels are expected to rise by about 40cm over the next hundred years and that there is no such threat of massive migration.

* The film claims that rising sea levels has caused the evacuation of certain Pacific islands to New Zealand. The Government are unable to substantiate this and the Court observed that this appears to be a false claim.

Doubtless, this is a tad embarrassing for the Nobel Prize Committee, but -- after all -- the Nobel Peace Prize is indubitably one for political, rather than scientific achievement. However, this incident should underscore just how often headlined and trumpeted "indubitable" truths rest on a fragile and too often debatable- at- best "factual" foundation.

Also, on the theme of Matt 24, it shows just how easily the world at large and world leaders in a media-dominated age can be misled into making strong personal, ideological and policy commitments on technical matters which they know little about. (But then, when the whole world set about celebrating the dawn of a new millennium in the year 2000 when simple arithmetic plus the fact that there was no year of "zero" would suffice to show that 2001 is the proper beginning of the new millennium, we should have seen that long since.)

On Climate- related matters in the context of the recent prize award, my own counsel (again in the context of a recent blog visit) is that:

First, given the technical defects in his case, it is painfully plain that Mr Gore’s Prize has more to do with the internationalist political climate, rather than the real one — and several other inexplicable awards over the past years simply underscore the point.

That will, sadly, redound to the harm of the Nobel Prize as an institution, long term.

However, having got that out of our system, we need to attend to matters more directly germane to the focus of this blog. Namely, the current deleterious intersection of Science, worldviews, political agendas and public perceptions.

Where to begin?

1] Let’s calm down:

We can note that very, very few of us are qualified to read technical, mathematics- and theory-dense papers on climate trends and driving dynamics with critically aware insight.

It would therefore behoove us to hold our opinions lightly and tentatively, rather than with ferocious emotional commitments and hostile perceptions that too much of this debate manifests — especially on Mr Gore’s side, who have unfortunately been more the sinners here than the sinned against. I am particularly incensed by the tendency to accuse those who point out deficiencies in the AGW advocates’ case, of being motivated by bribes from the Oil industry, etc.

2] Focus on the merits, not the headlines and hype:

Much of the strongly voiced opinion we see is driven by the weight of headlines and the prestige and persuasiveness of spokesmen for one side or the other — not the substance of the case.

In any case, science — as a study based on inference to best current explanation of observations — is incapable of proof beyond revision or even abandonment. Computer models, especially the relatively crude ones used in GCMs, are even moreso incapable of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed, as has been noted above and in links, there are still troubling empirical gaps between what the models say and what the data says.

In that context, headlining one-off events such as Hurricane Katrina, or the retreating of this particular glacier [and not the nearby one that is growing], or every heat wave — or cold one for that matter — simply acts to persuade, not to substantiate.

On balance therefore, there is an observation on current or recent climate trends, there are interesting explanations on offer, and there are concerns; some of them perhaps a bit overwrought due to hyping by enthusiasts and advocates.

3] Take reasonable and prudent actions:

My rule of thumb on CC-related action steps, is that we should take no action motivated by concerns over AGW that do not make sense on other grounds. Especially, if the actions have a high cost-to-benefits ratio.

For instance, I think the IPCC etc analysis suggests that Kyoto protocol actions would probably delay their projected trends by a decade. At the same time, too many of these actions may well have drastic and adverse impacts on economies. [And, economic depressions are a leading trend index of major wars, for many reasons. Not least, economically destabilised, desperate people are a lot less prone to think carefully before acting politically — just ask the Germans of the early 1930’s.]

4] Work on credible alternatives:

In the meanwhile, we can work harder on developing reasonable alternative energy technologies, e.g. Geothermal energy here in Montserrat. Such could cut our generation costs to competitive levels internationally, and take us out of the highly volatile international oil market for our biggest fossil fuel line item. Plus, we may have up to 900 MW of potential, from some estimates I have seen, raising the possibility of attracting energy-intensive industries and even electrical power export.

Longer term, I think dye-sensitised TiO2 photocells [maybe less than US$ 1/Watt capacity], Pebble Bed Modular Reactors [maybe less than US 2 cents/kWhr, or half current levellised generation costs], fuel cells and other emerging technologies offer interesting alternatives.

So do some of the proposals for Carbon sequestration and even the possible use of exhaust from power plants to make biofuels out of GM algae. (Transportation and Electricity generation are usually the top two fossil fuel users in an economy.)

Similarly, we have more than adequate reason to take prudent adaptation and where possible mitigation steps on climate related natural hazards. For instance, New Orleans should never be rebuilt to be as vulnerable as it was to a Cat 3 - 5 storm. Sooner or later one will come again. (Similarly, Plymouth, Montserrat, should never have been developed as it was as the principal centre for key infrastructure, right in the target zone of an active volcano.)

Thus, we can change the tone and terms of the debate, dramatically.

But also, I think I have found a calming voice of reason in the midst of the over-heated debate. One that we all should listen to. That is, I think we could all do with a read of the Roy Spencer article here.

Of this author it is written therein:

Roy W. Spencer received his PhD in meteorology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981. Before bcoming a Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2001, he was a Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where he and Dr. John Christy received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for their global temperature monitoring work with satellites. Dr. Spencer is the U.S. Science Team leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer flying on NASA’s Aqua satellite. His research has been entirely supported by U.S. government agencies: NASA, NOAA, and DOE.

I make a few notes:

–> It is sad that he has to make a long preface on the oil money bribe accusation. "Money" quote:

The dirty little secret is that environmental organizations and global warming pessimists receive far more money from Big Oil than do global warming optimists such as myself. While professional environmental lobbyists are totally dependent upon environmental crises for their continued existence, atmospheric researchers and meteorologists have day jobs which are not. Some outspoken global warming pessimists have received large cash awards (hundreds of thousands of dollars) for the positions they have taken; there are no such monetary awards for global warming optimists.

–> His contrast between the infamous Hockey-stick graph that tried to do away with the Medieval Climate optimum and the results of the GRIP borehole project is also interesting: we don’t need to use “proxies” for temperature like tree ring measurements — there are actual temperature ‘measurements’ that go back over 1,000 years. Borehole temperatures are taken deep in the ground, where the seasonal cycle in surface temperature sends an annual temperature pulse down into the Earth. Dating of these underground temperature pulses from Greenland (Fig. 3) reveals much warmer temperatures 1,000 years ago than today.

–> Thus, the climate optimum is evidently real, and shows a temp spike that is significantly in excess of the current one. Thus, natural variability can be a key factor in what is going on.

–> To this, we can add the recent “kept quiet” correction to the temp records of the US over the past 130 or so years, which suddenly and significantly shifts the pattern of “warmest years.” As Lorne Gunter remarks in the National Post, "The hottest year since 1880 becomes 1934 instead of 1998, which is now just second; 1921 is third. Four of the 10 hottest years were in the 1930s, only three in the past decade . . . . The 15 hottest years since 1880 are spread over seven decades. Eight occurred before atmospheric carbon dioxide began its recent rise; seven occurred afterwards."

–> To help us understand the rhetorical significance of that, Gunter asks us to imaginatively reverse the situation: "Imagine the shrieking of the warmers if we had previously thought that hot years were scattered throughout the past 130 years, but after a correction the warmest years could be seen to be concentrated in the past decade . . . . They would blitz every news organization and talk show."

–> In that context, the "quiet" correction is highly, sadly revealing.
So, let us all pause, take a deep breath, and then methodically proceed in a reasonable way to a more balanced, prudent and fair minded position and approach to truly sustainable development. END


A Gore Spokeswoman, has responded to the findings of the UK Judge in the Washington Post. Mr Christopher Walter, third Viscount Monkton of Brenchley [a former policy advisor to PM Thatcher of the UK] has come back to this point by point, itemising and discussing thirty-five errors in the Gore Film (including those raised by the Judge).

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