Stuck in the (balanced) middle with you

rsnzlogo.gif Hot news from the Royal Society of NZ: they’ve released a new statement on climate change to address what they describe as the “controversy over climate change and its causes, and possible confusion among the public“. The RS’s expert panel includes many of NZ’s top climate scientists. Here’s a handy summary of the statement:

The globe is warming because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Measurements show that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are well above levels seen for many thousands of years. Further global climate changes are predicted, with impacts expected to become more costly as time progresses. Reducing future impacts of climate change will require substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

The full statement goes into a lot more detail. Well worth reading. The Royal Society is New Zealand’s top scientific body “charged by its Act with informing the public about science, and fostering evidence-based scientific debate.” Sadly, I don’t think those who argue against action on climate change are much concerned with the evidence, but it will be interesting to see the mighty popguns of the NZ C”S”C turned on the Royal Society. It’s a “go ahead, make my day” moment…

37 thoughts on “Stuck in the (balanced) middle with you”

  1. I’m not sure why they’d bother. I don’t see any new verifiable material here, just the same old chicken little stuff and regurgitation of IPCC claims. Contestable choices of baseline temperature periods, extremely short timescales, etc. Sometimes you have to stop and recognize when “consensus” is actually “group think”.

    In particular they make a lot of reference to the “surface temperature record”. Well, you know what, there are good reasons not to trust that data.

    In the meantime
    the planet cools, at least in the short term, and radically at that. Might be just a blip, true, but the acid test of global warming – warming of the oceans – seems to be in decline, too.

    So what if the data swings the other way? Were SUV owners right all along?

    There are much better (IMHO) reasons to limit fossil fuel use. The ETS and Kyoto are worth following up if anything because they have created a multilateral framework for addressing quasi-pollutants, even if CO2 turns out not to be the bad boy we all thought it was. The greenies are right about CO2 but not for the reasons they think. Acidification of the oceans (eating into the ocean’s pH buffers) and byproducts of fossil fuel use are more tangible reasons to want to reduce emissions and more readily proven on shorter timescales. I think almost all of the recommendations on the report’s list make sense in their own right in some form for other reasons. Except, perhaps – capturing emissions; cleaning them up might be all that’s required – let the biomass mop up all that CO2. Better yet if you use renewable power sources of course.

    But look, I don’t expect a comment like this not to get completely fisked while probably completely missing my driving point so please don’t be offended if I decline to follow up.

  2. Well, Sam, you’re obviously wrong about the climate change end of things, but you are right about ocean acidification, which is a big enough problem in its own right to require decarbonisation of the global energy system.

    Funnily enough, you also have the balance of evidence completely wrong: we know much more about CO2’s effect on the atmosphere and climate than we do on the oceans.

    But my enemy’s enemy is my friend, etc and usw…

  3. you’re obviously wrong about the climate change end of things

    What if someone wanted to learn something from the conversations on this blog? Not necessarily me, but anyone…

  4. Gareth, I think the point is (and why both deniers and skeptics alike won’t shup up about this) that we don’t really “know” about the CO2 effect on the climate. Now I don’t mean to mince words here, but let’s just say that in order to “know” something we have to be able to derive it to observable evidence, direct links of causality/mechanisms and known physical principles. You just don’t get that with the CO2 climate forcing model. Parts of it might be very well established but overall it’s still conjecture/hypothesis, and so to some that’s not yet knowledge. See also

    Whereas with excessive CO2 and the oceans, there’s a direct cause and effect link there. Well, not quite direct – you still need the assumption that increased anthropomorphic CO2 emissions results in a corresponding increase from the biomass, because there’s still no way that human CO2 emissions on their own outweight natural sources. Given that you (and I assume your use of the collective “we” there means that you do understand this) could go over that part of the theory again, I still don’t quite get it. You see, more CO2 in the air means more plant growth which means it’s more of a carbon sink. So I make that a negative (cancelling) feedback system, not a positive one. But you know, I’m not a climate scientist so I don’t feel that bad about not knowing every link of the chain here.

    But by all means, continue to run with the argument. If you can find some good correlations and a working conceptual model to test real world observations against, then great. But if you can’t link the chain… well don’t be surprised if some people remain skeptical. That doesn’t mean we’re deniers or even bad people. We just want to be sure that it’s a wise thing to do when we could be instead of using those human resources to do something about world hunger or arms escalation. It better not be an imaginary demon!

  5. …let’s just say that in order to “know” something we have to be able to derive it to observable evidence, direct links of causality/mechanisms and known physical principles. You just don’t get that with the CO2 climate forcing model. Parts of it might be very well established but overall it’s still conjecture/hypothesis, and so to some that’s not yet knowledge.

    CO2’s effect on radiation transfer in the atmosphere has been understood for around 150 years, and Arrhenius had a good idea what that meant for climate 100 years ago. To somehow downgrade CO2’s impact you have to literally re-write physics.

    Increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere means the planet heats up. As the atmosphere warms, it’s able to hold more water vapour. Water vapour is itself a powerful GHG, so it acts as a positive feedback. Sceptics like to claim that this is not well understood, but that’s just nonsense. It has been observed, and is also beginning to show up in an intensification of the hydrological cycle.

    So how big is the impact? Sceptics like to claim that our understanding is based only on computer models, but that is also wrong. We can get a very good handle on what changes in GHG forcing mean for global climate by looking at what happens over the ice age cycle. From the depths of an ice age to a warm interglacial the planet warms by about 5C, and CO2 swings from 180 to 280 ppm.

    Our understanding of how the global climate system works is not complete – and I doubt it ever will be complete. It’s a vast and complex beast. But that doesn’t mean that we know nothing. We know a hell of a lot – easily enough to have a very good idea of what might happen if we carry on emitting lots of CO2 and CH4. I would strongly recommend that you click on The Discovery of Global Warming link in the blogroll. Spencer Weart’s history of climate science is a superb resource.

    As far as CO2 in the atmosphere is concerned, and the relationship between our emissions and the natural carbon cycle, the important point to remember is that the natural fluxes in and out of the atmosphere are (broadly speaking) in balance. About a third of our carbon emissions are currently absorbed by natural sinks – the rest accumulates in the atmosphere. There is no way that natural sinks can somehow magically absorb all the carbon we emit – certainly not when we’re hell bent on chopping down forests all over the planet!

    The “debate” about climate change is not a scientific debate, it’s a political debate that involves science. You will not find working climate scientists debating this stuff – it’s so well established. But you do find people who want to pretend that there’s a scientific debate, for whatever reason, and that’s what the RSNZ is addressing. NZ’s leading scientific institution has laid out the facts. If you want to disagree with the RS, you’re on an intellectual hiding to nothing.

  6. Increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere means the planet heats up. As the atmosphere warms, it’s able to hold more water vapour.

    You’ve correctly identified a positive feedback system! Great.

    However you were talking about a different part of the chain of causality than the one I was asking about. How did the increased CO2 get there in the first place? Because you can’t blame it all on human-bourne emissions, there isn’t enough. This is acknowledged in the IPCC climate model of course (after all, they are scientists), and AFAIK their solution is simply to make assumptions that fly in the face of common sense. The presence of this sort of thing means that a “skeptic” does not have to be a “denier”, and that there is indeed a middle ground.

    To quote Yoda, only a Sith Lord sees things in absolute black and white. Are you really saying “you’re either with us alarmists, or you’re a dirty denialist?”

    Back to the point of fact – the CO2 increase – the fallacy of your subsequent assertion is chiefly what I’m talking about here.

    There is no way that natural sinks can somehow magically absorb all the carbon we emit – certainly not when we’re hell bent on chopping down forests all over the planet!

    Of course there is. More CO2 – atmospheric or in the oceans – in theory and observation means more CO2 available for photosynthesizing plants, lichen and algae to grow. This is easily proven science too.

    I totally agree that deforestation is a bad thing. Converting huge amounts of biodiversity to single crops which will ruin the nutritive ability of the soil and general resistance of life on this planet to adapt to natural and man-made change sucks. But in the scales we’re talking about, it’s a small player.

    It’s important to get the details right, because it makes a huge difference in the solutions that get proposed and accepted. As the old saying goes, to feed a plant you must water its roots.

    NZ’s leading scientific institution…

    That’s a qualitative judgment and not helpful. I’ve listened to Dr. Wratt before and I was disappointed to hear him completely ignore the scientific questions posed by his counterpoint and instead focus on the politics and integrity of the IPCC. When really it is a quite small group of alarmists who the rest of the scientific community perhaps tolerate at their conferences, in the columns of their journals, whatever. But someone can reasonably argue that this position is the baggage of one scientific ghetto, especially in the light of the number of experts in the field who stick their neck out and challenge the science.

    Science is supposed to allow a well reasoned position supported by available evidence to receive support. To hide behind the qualifications or supposed superiority of those stating your point is to disengage in science and engaging in “debating”. You can win a debate and still be wrong about the facts.

  7. How did the increased CO2 get there in the first place? Because you can’t blame it all on human-bourne emissions, there isn’t enough.

    There are, and have been, more than enough human-caused carbon emissions to get us to the current atmospheric concentration. I’m not sure why you think the IPCC make assumptions about this – the work is long done and well-established. I would respectfully suggest you read Spencer Weart (see last comment), or for something a bit more technical Chapter 2 of the WG1 report, section 2.3.2 [full chapter PDF here].

    We know a hell of a lot more than you seem to think…

  8. Interesting too, that you should call a shonky petition project in the US as “the rest of the scientific community”, when the list of science organisations that explicitly support the “IPCC position” is lengthy. As the Wikipedia page on the subject points out:

    With the July 2007 release of the revised statement by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, no remaining scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate.

  9. Inactivist: There’s no consensus, as shown by this petition and that list of scientists!

    Rest: This ‘petition’ is shonky, and that ‘list’ agrees with AGW! There is a consensus.

    Inactivist: But science isn’t determined by consensus anyway!

    Rest: So why did you even bring up the list and the petition?

    Inactivist: GALILEO!!! GALILEO!!! GALILEO!!!

    — bi, International Journal of Inactivism

  10. Ok, fine, that petition is shonky, whatever. It really doesn’t change the fact that there is a long list of scientists that call this stuff into doubt. Not only that but there are no records apart from NASA’s next to useless GISS series that are reporting any warming since 1998.

    So, look, why don’t I just point you to the page in the IPCC report I’m talking about. I can’t find the diagram in the latest report but here it is in the 2001 report. There you go, as you can see the amount we’re emitting is really small change compared to the size of the sinks. 3GTon/year imbalance (at present) compared to a 730Gton sink, or 38,730Gton if you count the oceans. This is the “problem of scale”. Where did the extra carbon come from?

    As an aside related to the earlier part of this conversation, the IPCC acknowledges that increased CO2 results in more biomass uptake.

    So, anyway look I’ll go and get that book you’re talking about and read it. Because if they have the answer on this and the other links in the chain that people say are weak, then perhaps I’ll be convinced and change my point of view. Continuing to restate your opinion that this is all just settled is not helpful to this end, fwiw.

    bi: the foundation of science is in the questioning of established or “consensus” views using on reason, observation and deduction.

  11. Bah. The blog ate my reply. I won’t bother rewriting it all, other than to say you’ve convinced me I need to pick up that book and read it. It would be nice if I could be in a position where I could agree with you, but the sum of the information I have processed and understood so far means I have to respectfully disagree.

    Anyway, here’s the diagram I’m talking about where you can see the anthropomorphic CO2 dwarfed both by the sizes of the CO2 masses in the air and oceans and the annual production and consumption of CO2. The key question is: Where did the extra carbon come from?

    I obviously picked my list of dissidents hastily, but here’s another one.

    And finally here’s a reference from the horse’s mouth about increased CO2 levels increasing biomass uptake.

  12. Sam, the problem with CO2 is not the scale. Yes, there are big fluxes as carbon moves into and out of the oceans, soils, biosphere etc, but they are (or were, before we started fiddling with the planet) largely in balance. The carbon we inject into the system accumulates over time. That’s measured (the famous Keeling curve), and the source of the carbon is established as fossil fuel because of the changes in isotope fraction (fossil carbon, having once being fixed by biological action – which prefers the lighter carbon isotope – changes the balance between the isotopes in atmospheric carbon). That too is measured. The clincher, if you still need one, is that the atmospheric concentration of oxygen is declining, as you might expect of you’re burning a lot of carbon-rich fuel. Again, none of this is news. Weart’s book covers it well – and is available free on the web.

    Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will increase biosphere uptake – up to a point. But it certainly hasn’t increased enough to absorb our emissions over the last 150 years, and while we’re warming the planet and chopping down forests it isn’t going to happen. There is much more danger that we will trigger dangerous positive carbon-cycle feedbacks through the release of methane from warming permafrost and sea floor methane hydrates.

    You can find discussion of all of this in HT, and links to lots of sources in the Notes & Sources page linked at the top of every page.

  13. Sam,

    You point out a diagram from the IPCC report that suggests that human factors are increasing the atmospheric C02 in the 1980s by about 0.42% per year.

    And then you say there is a “problem of scale” and ask “Where did the extra carbon come from?”.

    But a quick google show that matches the Keeling Curve, which shows that atmospheric C02 increased by a bit under 5% over the course of the 1980s.

    So: what extra carbon?

    As for your claims of dissidents via wikipedia: I have a suggestion. Pick three of the “dissidents” from that list at random (roll a dice or summat). Read who they are – is this really an expert on the climate? Then read what they say. Read it carefully and critically, and if they give numbers cross-check them, and then check for rebuttals. If you tackle any of their work with the level of skepticism you’ve shown here you’ll find it illuminating.

  14. Sam,

    Here’s my view hope it helps…

    Ice cores show that over the past few thousand years but before the industrial revolution atmospheric CO2 content remained relatively stable. This means that over this period the CO2 fluxes must have been very close to balanced.

    Businesses are good at keeping receipts, so there is accurate information about how much coal and oil has been burnt, even going back two centuries. Since the carbon content of oil and coal is known, it is possible to accurately estimate the total emissions from these sources.

    About half of the fossil emissions remain as CO2 in the atmosphere. This is usually referred to as the “atmospheric fraction”. Apparently the other half is being taken up mostly by the oceans. I’m not sure how this is known (does anyone here know?) – I guess this can be confirmed by studies of the isotopic ratios, which show if the source was fossil (old photosynthesis), or natural (recent photosynthesis).

    The carbon cycle is often broken up the “active” and “inactive”(?) parts. The active carbon cycle can be further broken up as the ocean, biosphere and atmosphere. There are large fluxes between these components, as you mentioned.

    The inactive part is comprised of geological deposits which don’t naturally enter the active carbon cycle at large rates.

    Your argument seems to be that humans can transfer large amounts of carbon from the inactive carbon cycle into the active carbon cycle, without changing the atmospheric composition much. You have suggested that biosphere could act as a sink and absorb _all_ of this extra carbon.

    This doesn’t seem feasible. Currently people release around 6GTC/yr. In a BAU scenario this means 1000+ GTC over a century. The IPCC chart you linked to says 500GTC total is stored in plants. In other words the amount of carbon stored in plants would have to triple over the next century.

    Are you really going to stick to your claims that you think this is feasible?

    I find all of this stuff really interesting – but I’m not a scientist and I’m quite happy to leave this stuff to the professionals, and the scientific journals.

    I don’t understand why people think they should second guess this science after reading a few web pages.

    Sam – If you were a politician or ran Exxon Mobil and had to make important decisions, how would you make sure that you were getting accurate information about climate change?

  15. Oh, look, there’s that missing post. I guess I have to stand corrected on the scale front.

    greg, I’m just trying to understand. I don’t see why it’s impossible that the amount of carbon in the soils or oceans would not increase if suitably driven, slowly fixing carbon back into the ground. I guess it stands to reason that this effect would diminish of course. Perhaps not all into the ground, much of it would be increased ocean life. The 1000GTo over the century is about 2.5% of both of these reservoirs. Perhaps someone can dig up something as to whether either of these things are actually limited or not.

    sean, now that’s a funny idea. I’ll take up your challenge and have put up the first two results. I’ll hopefully get around to doing the third sometime.

  16. That’s good work Sam. Your judgement looks pretty sound to me… 😉

    There have been some studies on how long it would take the biosphere and geological processes (weathering) to remove the current pulse of CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans in the absence of human intervention. I can’t remember details, but it’s a long time – think thousands, not hundreds of years. Probably longer. After all, it took millions of years to get the fossil carbon into the ground as oil and coal…

    [The spam filter here interprets three links in a post as spam or something needing moderation. I get emails about the moderation queue, but not spam (thankfully)]

  17. Sam, you did pretty good for a newcomer to this stuff. You’re missing a measure each of an overview of the science, the history and the inside baseball, which lack you’re obviously aware of. (And of course I’m missing a lot of it too.)

    Re Kukla, e.g.:

    Milankovitch cycles (and global temperature distribution) at the present time are very much not doing what they were doing at the start of the last glaciation. Basically our northern hemisphere winters are very warm, and that’s what bars a glaciation. Recent work by others finds that the next natural glaciation is at least 30,000 years off, based on an analysis comparing Milankovitch cycle behavior during past interglacials.

    Interpersonal stuff can play a role. Kukla appears to suffer from a degree of Broecker envy. (Wally Broecker is a contemporary of Kukla’s at Columbia. He got famous with a big discovery – the thermohaline circulation – and Kukla didn’t come up with one.)

    Unlike Michaels and Soon, Kukla is not part of the denialist noise machine. As a consequence there hasn’t been a reason for anyone to spend time refuting him. Also, there’s something of a highly tolerated if not honored place in science for the cranky emeritus.

    (Note: I couldn’t figure out what point you were trying to make in the paragraph discussing Wegener.)

  18. Gareth, Sam,

    Another useful IPCC AR3 graphic is that showing the closure of budgets: here.

    The point is that the four sided polygon is closed (as is an O in comparison to a C). This shows how well the budgets can be constrained and it shows that the increase in ocean, land and atmospheric CO2, and associated reduction of O2, tally up. Thus the increase is due to fossil fuel burning over the period 1990-2000.

    You can see from the above IPCC graph how much of the human CO2 was used up in increased flux into land – photosynthesis uptake increase. The oceans are not a factor in that respect, see Box 3.5 this page.

    With regards the persistence of the human CO2 emissions pulse, there’s a more recent paper than this: But all I can remember right now is David Archer’s “The Fate of Fossil Fuels in Geologic Time” pdf

    A better approximation of the
    lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 for public discussion might be “300 years, plus 25% that lasts forever”.

    The other paper I can’t remember suggests more persistence in some sense – but I can’t recall the details. The carbon cycle doesn’t ring my bell. 😉

    PS I’ve recently been persuaded that we’re at Peak Oil now, approaching Peak Gas, and that coal reserves have been wildly overestimated. So I don’t know how much CO2 we can continue to emit, to what degree the economic impacts will reduce emissions. Nor (crucially) do I have a clue whether any of this limits the damage possible.

  19. Sam,

    “I don’t see why it’s impossible that the amount of carbon in the soils or oceans would not increase if suitably driven, slowly fixing carbon back into the ground.”

    I agree its possible, and I agree its a “slow” process.

    To offset anthropogenic carbon emissions this would need to be 6GTC a year, and with BAU much more by the end of the century. This requires very “fast” fixing of carbon.

    Human impacts appear to reducing the rate of fixing carbon. Have a read about Net Primary Productivity (NPP).

    Hope this helps…


  20. Cobbly:

    Read Kharecha & Hansen on “Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate.

    Bottom line: we can use up all the conventional oil and gas, and maybe be OK.

    We’d better phase out unsequestered coal, and avoid getting too deep into unconventional oil, or else, Not Good.

    See especially Figure 4 and compare BAU (a) with any of the others, and the big difference is coal.

  21. Thanks John,

    I don’t want to derail this discussion; but I did read K&H earlier this year. I just need to go through what I’ve learnt at TOD and other sites to factor into my considerations. Furthermore the economic implications add another layer of doubt, I suspect that given the persistence of CO2 even a global crash won’t impact CO2 per se, although a massive reduction in aerosol pollution caused by suh could be “interesting”.

    However, if we are seeing a rapid transition of the Arctic to a seasonally ice-free state then any degree of emissions reductions could already be too late.

  22. Strangely enough, I met a person last night who is a Physics PhD student at Vic and we ended up talking about this. They seemed to be of the opinion that many people who have investigated the science behind it concurs that there are many missing links in the chain; “The Science is not sound,” they said.

    Now, I know a sample of the “verbal consensus” of one department of one NZ university is hardly a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. But I think for me it flies in the face of the idea that “real scientists don’t doubt this”.

  23. I think the distinction is not between “real scientists” and whatever (virtual scientists?), but between scientists working in the field, and those who don’t. I wouldn’t ask a biologist for an opinion on the state of quantum physics, for instance.

    But don’t underestimate the standing of statements issued by the various national academies of science around the world. They represent scientists in all disciplines, and they all accept we have a real problem. (See my earlier comment)

  24. The antithesis of “real scientist” in this context is someone who is forming opinions on things they have not investigated scientifically, perhaps on vested interests though that does not necessarily imply bias.

    You’re right, you wouldn’t ask a biologist about quantum physics, but you might expect a quantum physics professor to have a reasonably good understanding of absorption spectra, one of the few “sound” pieces of science the CO2 AGW theory has. They can foray into it – reading the papers, understanding what it is the theory says as put forward by the writers of the material. And they can reach an opinion as an independent scientist.

    Anyway it seems I was wrong, the NZ Climate Science Coalition have responded to the paper. Why don’t you read what these “mighty popguns” have to say about the variety of contributors to the report, the facts which have been ignored, and the holes in the theory.

  25. I think you’re wrong about absorption spectra being the only “sound” thing. Have you not read The Discovery of Global Warming yet?

    As for the NZ C”S”C response, it had me in stitches. Suddenly they discover there’s been no warming since 1958! I will post on it soon – but I do have paying work to do!

  26. Sounds like a good idea. I’m reading that book, yes.

    The 1958 figure corresponds with the beginning of the radiosonde records. eg this graph from the UK MetOffice shows a zero net warming between those two periods, to 2007. Which just doesn’t agree with this one, even though it’s from the same source.

  27. Hi Sam,

    Your first graph is a nice illustration of one the most direct pieces of evidence for the current warming being due to greenhouse gas action. It shows the stratosphere cooling, and the troposphere (the lower atmosphere) warming. Cooling high up is predicted, and observed (the amount of radiation leaving the planet is being reduced by the GHGs in the troposphere, so the stratosphere cools). The second graph is for surface temps, and shows the uncertainties. Not large. Haven’t got time now to fisk the NZ CSC, but if this is where they’ve got their data from, they’re even more – how shall I put this politely – misguided than I thought.

  28. Right, as described around here. I’ve just finished reading a couple of chapters of that book and it is indeed interesting to see the timeline of development of these ideas. You could say there’s a certain amount of … coincidence between the skeptic essays that made me highly suspicious of the general findings in the first place. Usually these ideas have been presented as if they were new, as if climate scientists didn’t want to review them – but as I can see they have been around for ages. I think this is the best anti-skeptic resource I’ve come across since I watched Scam of the “Great Global Warming Swindle”.

    And I found an answer to a question I was wondering about, has anyone plugged in solar output variations (ie solar wind, sunspots, cosmic rays) into their models. And sure enough, someone did.

  29. Yeah, it’s one of the most frustrating things about dealing with “sceptic” arguments. They often involve the stuff that was dealt with a long time ago.

    And re the stratosphere cooling. This means that the upper atmosphere contracts, and satellites in near earth orbit experience less drag, and need to burn less precious fuel to maintain orbit. Global warming brings a cooling that gives satellites an easier ride…

    PS: That Swindle video is excellent!

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