Saturday, 15 December 2007

Good follow-up for readers of No Tomorrow

A Few Things Ill Considered: How to Talk to a Global Warming Sceptic

This is a pretty good site to start from when entering the debate: there is no censorship of contrary views.

I've included it as one of the resources on the google group for my book, No Tomorrow.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Cargo Cult Science

In keeping with the theme of cargo cults mentioned as a problem with computers in education, let's look again at another field where the outward appearance of science is sufficient: climate change doubt.

One Ernst-Georg Beck has attracted some attention through publishing a paper claiming that CO2 variation was much greater in the immediate pre-industrial era than today.

One bunch of comments not only spruiks this doubtful paper, but also repeats a claim that Mount St Helens spewed out more CO2 than all industrial sources since the start of the industrial age.

Let's give you a hint. Increasing atmospheric CO2 by 1 ppm represents about 7 gigatons of CO2.

In one of his graphs, Beck has atmospheric CO2 dropping by 100ppm over a single year, and increasing in other places almost as fast. 100ppm represents about 700Gtons of CO2 – if you are talking about the entire atmosphere. Since he claims his results are accurate to at worst 3%, he is proposing that there was some sort of CO2 sink that can absorb CO2 at that rate, but which has somehow magically switched off in the last century. And some sort of pre-industrial CO2 source that was equally magical.

A more rational interpretation of his data is that early measures had gross experimental errors. For example, we are exhaling CO2; if you are measuring in parts per million, it is extremely easy to contaminate the data.

As for volcanic output of CO2, I prefer to believe sources who are working in the field, e.g., How much CO2 did Mount St Helens' eruption in 1980 release into our atmosphere? Can you give me some idea of how much CO2 volcanoes add to the atmosphere generally?, Scott Rowland, University of Hawaii and Steve Mattox, University of North Dakota and A Compilation of Sulfur Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide Emission-Rate Data from Mount St. Helens during 1980-88, U.S. Geological Survey Global Change Research Program. The maximum daily output from Mt St Helens was about 23ktons. Contrast this with 10-billion tons of CO2 produced by power stations worldwide annually (about 27-million tons a day) and you have to conclude that someone is talking nonsense.

(I suspect there is some mixing in the various reports of metric and old fashioned tons but the difference is insignificant on the scales we are talking about here.)

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Proof of Climate Change

If you want an example of the reality of rapid human-induced climate change, you only need to look at the change in tone of reporting after Labor won the Australian federal election. In barely a week after the win, reporting on Kyoto changed in the Australian (mostly Murdoch's News Limited -- strictly limited) press from "we can do more by staying outside an imperfect system" to "Australia joining the club makes it so much stronger".

It was always a mystery to me in any case why refusing to join the club somehow gave us a stronger voice. All the weaknesses of Kyoto were extremely well known – indeed some were engineered in deliberately to make it an easy starting point. How, therefore, being outside would make those weaknesses clearer escaped me.

No doubt all of this made sense in the cloud-cuckoo land of a losing election campaign.

Now, we can turn to hard reality: gearing up for post-Kyoto.

The fact is that the Kyoto targets were more symbolic than real. Yet being in the system has focused effort on renewables and other approaches to emission reduction. Germany, with about half the rate of solar radiation we have with only about a twentieth of the land area, generates more than ten times the solar power per capita that we do. Why? Because Germany has stratagems like an aggressive policy for rewarding feed-in (when you generate solar power, and sell the excess to the grid).

The next piece of hard reality is short-term targets.

Labor has committed to committing to short term targets only after receiving a report from Professor Ross Garneau in 2008. That’s a start, but you have to worry about the commitment Labor has made to tax cuts without considering potential costs of emissions reduction targets. Here are a few examples of potential costs. Hot dry rock geothermal power is a promising technology that looks nearly ready to go, but significant commercial risks remain before the first plant can be operational. If hot rocks become part of the plan, is the government willing and able to stump up capital, if the private sector balks at the risk? What if the oil price continues to rise, making fast trains a desirable alternative for inter-city travel? Does the government have funds stashed somewhere to get new infrastructure costing tens of billions of dollars built?

Then there’s the clean coal story – an even more unproven technology than hot rocks. The fact that parts of the technology have been tested in different ways and on smaller scales doesn’t mean it will work. Again, there are significant risks that could prevent private capital from touching the technology. Either the government will have to support it with substantial capital – or face up to more likely scenario of the costs of a substantial decline in coal usage, both domestically and internationally.

On top of these straightforward risks is the question of how steep a carbon tax needs to be imposed to make cleaner technologies competitive. The carbon tax needs to be high enough to make the new technologies viable, but not so high as to cause major economic damage. It also needs to be calibrated to similar measures overseas.

On the subject of economic damage, the risks are somewhat overstated because a reconfiguration of an economy seldom results in pure cost. No doubt when the first Model-T hit the showrooms, the horse industry predicted doom and gloom. And, indeed, farriers and horse manure shovellers were put out of work in large numbers... and no doubt still populate the dole queues in large numbers. A significant factor in a post-Kyoto economy will be improved efficiencies, which should have a knock-on effect. In the process of reducing energy needs, an organization may find and eliminate other inefficiencies. Why? Once a culture of R&D has been established, the scientists and engineers engaged to reduce energy consumption will need to justify their jobs by discovering other useful innovations. (And of course it will be harder to fire them under a Labor government when the job is done, but I digress…)

The indirect cost of recalibrating the economy is rebuilding capacity for R&D in areas long neglected under the previous government: alternative energy, business process efficiency, science, engineering and mathematics.

Australia is well below the OECD average for R&D expenditure measured as a fraction of GDP (1.64 in Australia, versus an average of 2.26 – 2005 figures). Providing an incentive to spend more on R&D, in the long run, will advantage our economy not disadvantage it as apologists for doing nothing claim. Being stuck in a fossil fuel economy when the rest of the world starts imposing carbon taxes certainly will not be a good place to be.

With some of the recent announcements of findings that indicate that climate change science up to now has been understating the risks, we need to be on side, and taking part constructively, not carping from the sidelines.

To misquote LBJ: we can surely do more by being inside the tent pissing out than by being outside the tent pissing in.