Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A change of weather

I just read (slogged through) the rather lengthy and full-of-Greek-letters paper, http://rspa.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/466/2114/303.full.pdf+html

Wow, I have been a long standing global warming skeptic.  This paper has been quite an awakening.

In this paper Mike Lockwood discusses with real numbers, real data, and the best science available all the rumors and innuendos on the internet about climate.

For example one of my favorites has been "The solar wind varies during sunspot cycles and the kinetic impact of the solar wind on the upper atmosphere could be causing warming, so at solar minimums the climate should cool."  Turns out that has been studied and estimated and is about 0.02 watts per square meter (page 323).  Global warming is in the range of 5 watts per square meter of effective heating.

In many places there are fairly wide ranges of estimates and he freely admits that.  But the range of error in "Well, I think such and such because it just seems right" is one heck of a lot wider in error.

One thing I get from reading many different scientific papers on climate (you know, the ones that are PDFs and highly technical, dense in facts and data, and unemotional, and written by actual scientists) is that the science of climate is in a huge state of flux. Planetary science is in a similar state and for the same reasons, we have satellites that are getting better and better data all the time.

The basic issue is not "do we cause global warming" nor is it "is climate mostly Sun-controlled". The real issue is "what fraction of the total climate is determined by various causes, and how?"  So in the climate debate, everyone is correct, but how correct and whom should policy makers listen to is the real issue. Also it may be that the largest climate fluctuation controller over a century or two is the sun + ocean cycles + whatever, but a very long term trend is that humans are warming the planet.  This means the highs get a little higher and the lows a little warmer, which could have profound effects on human well being.

There should also be a policy debate on what effect humans are having on climate and what can we do about it vs. what does it cost in short and long term resource investment.  This debate is not happening at all in the general public sector.

So here are the fundamental questions and where my opinion has of late changed drastically:
  1. Is global warming and/or climate change happening.  Yes.  No change here.  Everyone knows this and climate has been fluctuating for the last several billion years.
  2. Are we causing global warming? Big change here - Yes.  The evidence points to this.  It is not perfectly conclusive, but is the best most logical science we have now.  This evidence is buried under a mountain of opinion, politics, and social fear of the consequences, yet at the same time is in plain sight on the internet.  You just have to look for it and train your self to read the academic jargon.  Not that hard with practice. (I cut my teeth on Scientific American and other more technical reading so I learned this at about age 10.)
  3. Can we do any thing about it?  Yes, but it will require changes in basic societal values.  There are even some very simple solutions like injecting Sulfur Dioxide into the upper atmosphere, which would not be all that expensive or difficult.  (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=poll-finds-support-for-geoengineering-blocking-sunshine) But see #4 below. (An experiment is happening very soon in England to test this idea.) There are many ideas such as lower carbon emissions, mirrors in space, etc.
  4. Will we do anything?  The current intelligence and mindset of politicians in all the world governments (not just the United States) is so pitifully low as to make it doubtful anything effective can or will be done. I suggest the video "Pale Blue Dot" on youtube. It is very unfortunate that the United States is in the perfect position to lead the world into a more sustainable future, but does not.  Such leadership will take more than a well connected oil man, or a hansome charismatic speaker.  It will take an actual leader of talent, integrity, and compromise.  Good luck with either political party of the US ever fielding such a candidate.  That future world does not need to be a world of low income peasant medieval farmers, it could be a very nice world, in many ways better that the current one.  The only way a real solution (not the joke that the Kyoto Protocol is) will happen is when the general population decides to make it happen.  Historically our track record for such response is not too good.  Neither the Democrats, nor Republicans, nor the Tree Huggers have the skills or mindset to solve this. None of the above parties have any interest in solving climate issues.  The politicians love a Big Crisis and the Al Gores of the world would be out of a job if a solution a simple as Sulfur Dioxide injection worked. (Estimated cost $200 million to solve the whole problem, untested).
As Jared Diamond said, "Cautious optimism".

    P.S. History never comes out the way one predicts or expects. Life is an adventure.