What are the facts about global warming?

In his book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley discusses how through trade, our species has achieved unprecedented growth and prosperity.  He even tackles head on what some might consider the most daunting issue of our age, climate change.  He shows how through our endless human ingenuity, and through free markets, we can continue to become more prosperous while being good shepherds of our environment.

Just to give some background, I’m going to list a few problems in the science of climate change, that  Matt Ridley highlights before I discuss how free markets are already working to overcome this challenge.  Contrary to what some alarmists claim, several studies of the last three decades of relatively slow average temperature changes seem to indicate a low sensitivity rather than a high sensitivity model of greenhouse warming.  Furthermore, the warming we are experiencing increases the amount of water vapor in the air which many people point out is a potent greenhouse gas, but science is showing that cloud coverage may cause as much cooling as water vapor causes warming. Also, another potent greenhouse gas, methane, has been erratically decelerating in emissions contrary to those who claim the warming will release detrimental amounts of methane trapped under the permafrost.  Perhaps most important, there have been warmer years in Earth’s history such as in medieval times, and about 6000 years ago, but the most frightening aspect of global warming, the tipping points, were never reached.  Finally, the biggest fear people have is with the melting ice caps, but the science shows that the Greenland land based ice caps are losing less than 1 percent of their mass per century, and at that rate they won’t disappear until 12000 AD.

When discussing global warming, there are several benefits that are rarely mentioned. In the warmest scenario used by the IPCC, we will have the least amount of hunger, and will require less land to meet our agricultural needs, even before human innovations are taken into account. We will be able to go from 11.6 percent of the landmass being used for agriculture down to 5 percent in 2100(http://www.reason.com/news/show/132145.html).  This will occur for several reasons, one of which being the warmer world will have greater rainfall, like it did during previous warm periods. The IPCC estimated that on net, the population at risk of water shortages falls by 2100 due to the estimated warming, and the increased rainfall that it brings (http://wattsupwiththat.com/2008/09/18/how-the-ipcc-portrayed-a-net-positive-impact-of-climate-change-as-a-negative/#more-3138). Another reason for the diminished hunger and use of agricultural lands is the higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere increasing the yields of crops; an already well known fact by greenhouse owners who enrich the air to 1000 ppm of CO2  to take advantage of this increased yield.

Considering there are many benefits to global warming that have been neglected to be mentioned, it is logical to expect that there are overstated costs to global warming, and you would be right to have that expectation. The most commonly mentioned cost to global warming is an all around worse hurricane season, in terms of winds, rainfall, and damage, but this is blatantly false.  During the 20th century we saw no increase in the number of, or maximum wind speeds of Atlantic hurricanes making land fall. Globally, tropical cyclone intensity hit a 30 year low in 2008. Also, the cost of Hurricanes is going up, but that has nothing to do with hurricanes, instead it is the result of building and insuring expensive coastal properties. Additionally, the number of deaths from hurricanes depends more on wealth and weather forecasts than the power of the hurricane. In 2007, well prepared Yucatan was hit by a category 5 hurricane, and suffered no casualties, while unprepared Burma had a similar storm, and lost the lives of 200,000. Another common myth about the potential costs of global warming is the increased susceptibility to malaria people will suffer, but the facts simply refute this notion.  Europe, North America, and Russia during the 19th and early 20th centuries when the temperatures were a full degree colder, experienced horrible cases of malaria. During the warming of the 20th century it has disappeared from these locations because people brought their cattle into barns giving mosquitoes another food source, people moved indoors at night behind closed windows, and they drained swamps and applied pesticides. Malaria expert Paul Reiter states that there is no evidence that climate change has played any role in the burgeoning tragedy of this disease at any altitude.  Finally, global warming is commonly thought to cause the extinction of coral reefs sometime this century. Those familiar with the subject of coral reefs admit that some reefs may die out if the world rapidly warms during the 21st century, but they also admit that the reefs in cooler regions may expand, and most importantly, the biggest danger to reefs are local threats such as silt, nutrient runoff, pollution, and overfishing of herbivorous fish that otherwise keep the reefs free from algae, not global warming.  Lastly, it is now clear that corals rebound quickly from the warming induced bleaching episodes within just a few years, which is thought to be how they survived the warming at the end of the last ice age.

Lets just for the sake of argument say that global warming is happening, and we have to do something about it. We still face the problem of calculating where to best invest our resources.  There have been several attempts at this. Nicholas Stern, who was appointed by the British government to estimate the potential future costs of global warming, calculated global warming to cost 29 dollars per ton of carbon dioxide. To achieve this he used discount rates far lower than the typical 6 percent, and as a result he overestimated the harm to the 22nd century by a factor of 100. According to him, your great, great, great grandfather whose standard of living was roughly that of a modern day Zambian, should have put aside most of his income to pay for your bills today. With higher discount rates we see that the cost of warming is far less than the harm done by climate mitigation measures today.  Economists estimate that a dollar spent on mitigating climate change brings 90 cents of benefits compared with 20 dollars benefit for each dollar invested in healthcare, and 16 dollars of benefit for each dollar spent on hunger.  What this means is climate mitigation measures make society worse off, and instead we should focus on alleviating real problems our society faces, such as hunger, healthcare, and malaria.

So, the last question I would like you to ponder is, if we move forward under the assumption that global warming is a real danger, but any investment in climate mitigation measures is a net harm to society, what can we do about global warming? Well fortunately this is the part where we talk about human ingenuity, and how that is helping us increase our prosperity while being more environmentally friendly. Italian engineer Cesare Marchetti once drew a graph of human energy use over the past 150 years, and highlighted how we moved from wood to coal to oil to gas, and how the percentage of carbon involved in combustion has declined. He said that by 2100 carbon will make up only 10 percent of our combustion, and will be replaced with hydrogen, as the trends have shown. Jesse Ausubel Predicts that if the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070. What this means is, we will be able to meet our growing energy demands, while actually reducing our CO2 emissions.  Looking at solar panels, all it would take for this technology to be viable, and this is easier said than done, would be the capability to mass produce them at 200 dollars per square meter, and for them to have an efficiency of 12 percent. At that point they would be generating the equivalent of a barrel of oil for about 30 dollars. Seeing how it is not good to put all our eggs in one basket, engineers are close to being able to use sunlight to make hydrogen directly from water by using ruthenium dye as a catalyst, in effect replicating photosynthesis.  Finally, each year more than 200 billion tons of carbon are removed from the atmosphere by growing plants and plankton, and 200 billion tons are returned to it by rotting, digestion and respiration. Human activity adds less than 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide to this cycle, or about 5 percent. It might be possible for humans in this century to nudge the natural carbon cycle so that it can accept the additional 5 percent we put into it. This could be done by fertilizing desert stretches of ocean with iron phosphorus, by encouraging the growth of carbon rich oceanic organisms called salps, which sink to the bottom of the ocean taking the carbon dioxide with them, or by burying bio-char.

In conclusion, whether or not global warming is occurring on this planet, people are more than capable of adapting to whatever the environment throws at us, and all the while, increasing our standards of living dramatically.

References (ordered in the same order they appear)

  • the fact that the last 3 decades of relatively slow average temperature changes are more compatible with a low sensitivity, than a high sensitivity model of greenhouse warming
    • Lindzen, R.S. and choi, Y.S. 2009. On the determination of climate feedbacks from orbe data. Geophysical research letters. In press. Schwartz, S.E., R.J. Charlson, and H Rhode, 2007: quantifying climate change – too rosy a picture? Nature reports climate change 2:23-24, and Schwartz S.E. 2008 reply to comments by G Foster et al., R Knutti et al., and N Scafetta on heat capacity, time constant, and sensitivity of earth’s climate system. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D15105. (doi:10.1029/2008JD009872).
  • Clouds may slow warming as much as water vapor may amplify it.
    • Paltridge, G., Arking, and pook, M. 2009. Trends in middle- and upper- level tropospheric humidity from NCEP reanalysis data. Theoretical and applied climatology. (doi:10.1007/s00704-009-0117-x).
  • That the increase in methane has been erratically decelerating for years.
    • M.A.K. Khalil, C.L. Butenhoff and R.A. Rasmussen, Atmospheric methane: trends and cycles of sources and sinks, environmental science and technology 41:2131-7.
  • That there were warmer years in earth’s history in medieval times and about 6000 years ago yet no accelerations or tipping points were reached.
    • Loehle, C.2007. A 2000 year global temperature reconstruction based on non-treering proxies. Energy & environment 18:1049-58; and Moberg, A., D.M. Sonechkin, K Holmgren, N.M. Datsenko, and W. Karlen, 2005. Higly variable northern hemisphere temperatures reconstructed from low and high resolution proxy data. Nature 433:613-7
  • When discussing greenland’s ice, what is important is the land based ice cap, and that is what the following sources are discussing. This is because if you look at the other Greenland ice, it is ice that already is in the ocean, and this ice’s melting has no impact on sea level. The science says that the land based ice cap is losing mass at a rate of less than 1 percent per century, or put in another way, it will completely disappear at current trends around the year 12000 AD.  Of course there is a temperature at which the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps would disintegrate, but according to the IPCC scenarios if it is reached at all, it is certainly not going to be reached in the 21st century.
    • Even the highest estimates of Greenland melting Luthke, S.B. et al 2006.
    • Recent Greenland ice mass loss from drainage system from satellite gravity observant
    • ions. Science 314:1286-9.
    • If anything, the rate of melting in Greenland is slowing: van de wal, R.S.W. , et al 2008
    • Large and rapid melt induced velocity changes in the ablation zone of Greenland ice sheet science: 321:111
  • This effect, together with greater rainfall and new techniques, means that less habitat will probably be lost to farming in a warmer world. Indeed, under the warmest scenario, much land could revert to wilderness, leaving only 5 percent of the world under the plough in 2100, compared with the 11.6 percent today, allowing more space for wilderness.
  • All things being equal, warming will itself reduce the total population at risk from water shortage. On average rainfall will increase in a warmer world because of greater evaporation from the oceans, as it did in previous warm episodes such as the Holocene (when the arctic ocean may have been almost ice free in the summer), the Egyptian, roman, and medieval warm periods. The great droughts that changed history in western asia happened, as theory predicts, in times of cooling 8200 years ago, and 4200 years ago especially. If you take the IPCC’s assumptions and count the people living in zones that will have more water versus zones that will have less water, it is clear that the net population at risk of water shortage by 2100 falls under all their scenarios.  Although water will continue to be fought over, polluted, and exhausted, while rivers and boreholes may dry up because of over use, that will happen in a cool world as well.
  • The richest and warmest version of the future will have the least hunger, and will have ploughed the least extra land to feed itself. These calculations come not from barmy skeptics, but from the IPCC’s lead authors. And this is before taking into account the capacity of human societies to adapt to a changing climate.
    • Parry, M.L., Rosenzweig, C., Iglesias, A., Livermore, M. and Fischer, G, 2004: effects of climate change on global food production under SRES emissions and socio-economic scenarios. Global environment change 14:53-67
    • Levy, P.E., et al. 2004. Modelling the impact of future changes in climate, CO2 concentration and future land use on natural ecosystems and the terrestrial carbon sink. Global Environmental change 14:21-30.
  • During the warming of the 20th century there was no increase in either the number or the maximum wind speed of atlantic hurricanes making landfall. Globally, tropical cyclone intensity hit a 30 year low in 2008. The cost of hurricanes has increased greatly, but this is because of the building and insuring of expensive coastal properties, not because of storm intensity or frequency.
    • Pielke, R.A., Jr., Gratz, J., Landsea, C.W. , Collins, D., saunders, M.A. and Muslin, R, 2008: Normalized hurricane damage in the US:1900-2005. Natural Hazard Review 9:29-42
  • What about malaria? Malaria was rampant in Europe, north America, and Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the world was nearly a degree colder than now. It disappeared, while the world was warming, because people kept their cattle in barns (giving mosquitoes another dining option), moved indoors at night behind closed windows, and to a lesser extent because swamps were drained and pesticides used.
    • Reiter, P. 2008. Global warming and malaria: knowing the horse before hitching the cart. Malaria Journal 7 (supplement 1): S3
  • There is no evidence that climate has played any role in the burgeoning tragedy of this disease at any altitude says Paul Reiter a malaria expert
    • Reiter P. 2007. Human ecology and human behavior. Civil society report on climate change. International policy network.
  • At the very most climate change has the possibility of increasing current deaths from malaria (a million people per year) by 30,000, an increase of 3 percent.
    • Goklany, I. 2004. Climate change and malaria. Science 306:56-7
  • The threats to species, rather than being climate change,  are: habitat loss, pollution, invasive competitors, and hunting.  Conservationists have been distracted from protecting species from the 4 causes of extinction listed above because of the environmental hysteria. Take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, nutrient runoff and fishing – especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of algae.  It is true that rapidly heating the water by a few degrees can devastate reefs by bleaching out the corals symbiotic algae, as happened to many reefs in the especially warm el nino year of 1998. But bleaching depends more on the rate of change than the absolute temperature.  This must be true because nowhere on the planet, not even in the Persian gulf where water temperatures reach 35 degrees C is there a sea too warm for coral reefs. Lots of places are too cold for coral reefs, the Galapagos for example.
  • It is now clear that corals rebound quickly from bleaching episodes, repopulating dead reefs in just a few years which is presumably how they survived the warming lurches at the end of the last ice age. It is also apparent from recent research that corals become more resilient the more they experience sudden warmings.
    • Oliver T.A. and Palumbi, S.R. 2009. Distributions of stress-resistant coral symbionts match environmental patterns at local, but not regional scales. Marine ecology progress series 378:93-103 see also Baker, A.C. et al. 2004. Coral reefs: corals’ adaptive response to climate change. Nature 430:741, who say: “ the adaptive shift in symbiont communities indicates that these devasted reefs could be more resistant to future thermal stress, resulting in significantly longer extinction times for surviving corals than had previously been assumed.
  • Some reefs may die if the world warms rapidly in the 21st century, but others in cooler regions may expand.  Local threats to reefs are far more immediate than climate change.
    • Kleypas, J.A., Danabasoglu, G. and Lough. J.M. 2008. Potential role of the ocean thermostat in determining regional differences in coral reef bleaching events. Geophysical research letters 35: L03613. (doi:10.1029/2007GL032257)
  • Ocean acidification looks suspiciously like a back up plan by the environmental pressure groups in case the climate fails to warm: another try at condemning fossil fuels.  The oceans are alkaline, with an average pH of about 8.1, well above neutral (7). They are also extremely well buffered. Very high carbon dioxide levels could push that number down to about 7.95 by 2050 – still highly alkaline, and still much higher than it was for most of the last 100 million years. Some argue that this tiny downward shift in average alkalinity could make it harder for animals and plants that deposit calcium carbonate in their skeletons to do so, but this flies in the face of chemistry.  The reason the acidity is increasing is that the dissolved bicarbonate is increasing too – and increasing the bicarbonate concentration increases the ease with which carbonate can be precipitated out with calcium by creates that seek to do so. Even with tripled bicarbonate concentrations, corals show a continuing increase in both photosynthesis and calcification. This is confirmed by a rash of empirical studies showing that increased carbonic acid either has no effect or actually increases the growth of calcareous plankton, cuttlefish larvae, and coccolithophores.
    • Iglesias-rodriguez, M.D. et al. 2008. Phytoplankton calcification in a high CO2 world. Science 320:336-40. Other studies of the carbonate issue are summarized by Idso, C. 2009. CO2 Global warming and coral reefs. Vales lake publishing.
  • Nicholas Stern, who was appointed by the british government to estimate potential future costs doubled Richard tol’s figure of 14 dollars per ton and came to an estimate of 29 dollars per ton. How did he do this, and what does this mean? Stern used discount rates of 2.1 percent for the 21st century, 1.9 percent for the 22nd century and 1.4 percent for every subsequent century, compared with a typical discount rate of 6 percent. To put in context, the lower discount rates used by stern, multiplies the estimated harm to the 22nd century by a factor of 100. This also compares to saying that a life saved from coastal flooding in 2200 should have almost the same spending priority now as a life saved from AIDS or malaria today. Or put in a different way, it implied that your great, great, great grandfather, whose standard of living was roughly that of a modern day Zambian, should have put aside most of his income to pay your bills today.  With higher discount rates Stern’s argument collapses because even the worst case harm done by climate change in the 22nd century is far loss costly than harm done by climate mitigation measures today.
    • Weitzman, M 2007. Review of the stern review on the economics of climate.
  • If we want to most efficiently spend our money so as to improve the lives of our fellow man,  we should spend our efforts combating the problems of hunger, dirty water, indoor smoke, and malaria.  Economists estimate that a dollar spent on mitigating climate change brings 90 cents  of benefit compared with 20 dollars of benefit per dollar spent on healthcare and 16 dollars of benefit per dollar spent on hunger.  Keeping climate at 1990 levels, assuming it can be done,  (and assuming it can be done, could it be done without having negative unintended consequences,) would leave more than 90 percent of human mortality causes untouched.
    • Lomborg, B. 2008. How to get the biggest bang for 10 billion bucks . Wall Street Journal, 28 july 2008.
  • Italian engineer Cesare Marchetti once drew a graph of human energy use over the past 150 years as it migrated from wood to coal to oil to gas. In each case, the ratio of carbon atoms to hydrogen atoms fell, from 10 carbon for every 1 hydrogen in wood, to 1 in coal, to ½ in oil, to ¼ in methane.  In 1800 carbon atoms did 90 percent of combustion, but by 1935 it was 50 percent carbon and 50 percent hydrogen, and by 2100 90 percent of combustion may come from hydrogen – made with nuclear electricity most probably.
  • Jesse Ausubel predicts that “if the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.
  • This isn’t to say that renewable energy is inherently bad. On the contrary, it would be better to use them once they become more efficient, and the costs come down.  Once solar panels can be massed produced at 200 dollars per square meter, and with efficiency of 12 percent, they could generate the equivalent of a barrel of oil for about 30 dollars. Though the problem with solar and wind is their intermittences, and the need to develop more efficient batteries to store the energy produced.
  • It is possible that engineers may quite soon be able to use sunlight to make hydrogen directly from water with ruthenium dye as a catalyst – replicating photosynthesis in effect
    • Bullis, K. 2008. Sun+water=fuel. Technology review, November/December, 56-61
  • Each year more than 200 billion tons of carbon are removed from the atmosphere by growing plants and plankton,  and 200 billion are returned to it by rotting, digestion, and respiration. Human activity adds less than 10 billion tons to that cycle, or 5 percent. It cannot be beyond the with of 21st century humankind to nudge the natural carbon cycle into taking up 5 percent more than it releases by fertilizing desert stretches of the ocean with iron phosphorus; by encouraging the growth of carbon-rich oceanic organisms called salps, which sink to the bottom of the ocean, or by burying biochar – powdered charcoal made from crops.
    • Lebrato, M. and Jones, D.O.B. 2009. Mass deposition event of pyrosoma atlanticum carcusses off ivory coast of west Africa. Limnology and oceanography 54:1197-1209
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