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NAS Awash in Uncertainties
The Bush Administration has gotten plenty of political heat for their "current" stand (at least as of press time) that the Kyoto agreement would cost too much for U.S. involvement. The multibillion-dollar environmental lobby and every socialist government in Europe have been whining worse than an hysterical 2-year-old who just witnessed the ritual murder of Barney.
Needing an unbiased report they could hide their policies behind, whatever they may be, the Administration sought the wise counsel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). That is a common ploy when the government is faced with complex issues of Science with a capital S: Ask for an overview report from the National Academy, which assembles a team of experts on the issue. Those experts meet, hammer out a consensus report, and then leave the policy decisions to the government.
This approach has several inherent problems, however, some general and some specifically related to the climate change issue. First, all these reports are essentially identical: "On the one hand, X is right. On the other hand, however, Y is also right. Uncertainties remain. Please don't cut funding for this important issue. Oh, did we say please?"
Science is not a democracy. It does not operate by consensus. Oftentimes, a minority or an individual is right and the larger population is wrong. Nature is free to ignore the consensus.
A more specific problem is that this issue involves the science of climate. You may be surprised to learn that no trained climatologists are actually members of the National Academy. For decades, climatologists were the deranged step-uncles of the atmospheric sciences family (and to some extent, among some hard-core meteorologists, that remains the case). The scientific study of climate was deemed too trivial to be worthy of the Academy's high standards.
When the National Academy is asked to report on some climate issue, they pull in a few peripheral, nonclimatologist members to study the problem (it's only climatology, remember—any good NAS chemist or physicist should be able to sort it all out in a day or two) and ask some "right thinking" non-Academy members to join the panel. Toss in a well-known naysayer or two with a "decent" academic address, and you've got yourself a panel.
But there is one crucial aspect of the global warming debate that few people outside of climatology—and that includes the current Administration—have as yet managed to grasp. On one side of the argument are climate modelers, most of whom are convinced that Earth's climate is going to hell and power generation is the cause. The other side is populated by climatologists who analyze actual data—most of whom don't trust the models and are not convinced, from our analyses of the observations, that climate change is a big hairy deal. Of course, there are exceptions on either side.
Take a look at the National Academy lineup: Three chemists, three climate modelers, two meteorologists, one oceanographer, and two climatologists of the data-analysis persuasion, one of whom spent the last eight years hanging out with Al Gore. The panel's two naysayers, no doubt added for balance, could be outvoted by National Academy chemists alone!
The Bush Administration, in a very short letter, specifically asked the panel to identify "the areas in the science of climate change where there are the greatest certainties and uncertainties." A simple question. What do you really know?
Despite the panel's composition, and in contrast to press coverage of the report, the answer to this question is apparently "not much." Operating in full equivocation mode, the panelists claim they are certain the planet is in big trouble, yet nearly every aspect of the problem is bulging with uncertainties.
Here's a sampling, paraphrased for your convenience:
The rate of methane increase has slowed and we don't know why.
We are even more confident than we were 10 or even five years ago that greenhouse gases are warming the climate, but we can't be sure because we don't know what the climate's natural variability is and the climate models aren't good enough to tell us.
By 2100, the surface will warm by 1.4° to 5°C. We can't be more accurate because we don't know the relationship between greenhouse gas concentrations and temperature.
Rainfall will increase, although some models say it will decrease in some places, such as the U.S. Great Plains. But models aren't good enough to predict precipitation over such a small region.
[And now for some direct quotes:] "Much of the difference in predictions of global warming by various climate models is attributable to the fact that each model represents [feedback processes] in its own particular way. These uncertainties will remain until a more fundamental understanding of the processes that control the atmospheric relative humidity and clouds is achieved.
"Over much of the United States, adverse health outcomes would likely be mitigated by a strong public health system, relatively high levels of public awareness, and a high standard of living. Global warming could well have serious adverse societal and ecological impacts by the end of this century, especially if globally-averaged temperature increases approach the upper end of the IPCC projections.
"The finding that surface and troposphere temperature trends have been as different over intervals as long as a decade or two is difficult to reconcile with our current understanding of the processes that control the vertical distribution of temperature in the atmosphere.
"Changes in storm frequency and intensity are one of the more uncertain elements of future climate change prediction."
We could spend pages deconstructing the latest NAS report paragraph by paragraph, but why? Nothing here is new. A panel of nonclimatologists can't invent any new climate paradigms in a month's time. This release is nothing more than the usual IPCC spin with the same old caveats attached.
It's too bad the Bush Administration didn't ask us climatologists to report on climate change—we could get it for him wholesale. But that's OK, we've prepared a report anyway. It's a lot shorter, because we have a tee time:
Humans are influencing the climate. They always have. The only way to prevent that is to eliminate humans.
Increasing greenhouse gas levels are raising temperatures, probably even global average temperatures. The temperature rise is minor and will generally improve life for far more people, plants, and animals than it could possibly harm. Greenhouse gases are rising because of man's inherent need to make the world a better place for himself and his children. Compare the world today with the world of 1750. If you really think 1750 was better, please cut the electric power to your house and stop being a hypocrite.
Despite huge improvements in computational power over the last two decades, climate models still can't forecast future climate because they can't accurately predict all the key features of the observed, past climate. The problem is not computer power but human power. We are just not smart enough yet to model the climate properly—that is to say, we don't have a good enough understanding of the detailed workings of all the physical processes involved.
If greenhouse gas levels continue rising at the current rate, the planet will be about 1.5°C warmer by the year 2100. But that prediction is largely irrelevant, since some technological advance heretofore unimaginable will significantly reduce or eliminate our need for fossil fuel consumption by then.
That discovery will take place not because of some federal energy incentive program, but because of the creativity of one or several individuals whose incentive is not some government subsidy but the chance to become rich. Therefore, that discovery will probably occur in the United States (or maybe Japan). The French will claim they actually had discovered it one week earlier.
The history of "forthcoming" environmental disasters, from silent spring to Iraqi oil fires to Alar on apples to killer bees remains but a list of unfulfilled prophesies. Global warming will be long forgotten the minute the spectre of next disaster suddenly appears.
Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Issues, 2001. National Academy Press, Washington, 28 pp.
-- Buddy (email@example.com), June 20, 2001
BBC: By Environment correspondent Alex Kirby
A draft report prepared for the world's governments says that the earth may heat up much more than current forecasts suggest.
The report, by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says average global temperatures could rise twice as much as they thought earlier. It foresees a possible rise of 6C above 1990 levels. Five years ago the IPCC was predicting a probable maximum increase of 3C.
Scientists believe the level of carbon dioxide emissions being forecast in the report could trigger the mass death of forests and significant rises in sea levels, as well as crop failures and extreme weather.
The report is only a draft, and it is liable to be altered before publication next May.
But it is bound to loom large at next month's meeting in the Netherlands of the countries which have signed the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement on tackling climate change.
That commits signatories to collective cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of 5.2% below their 1990 levels by some time between 2008 and 2012.
Many scientists say Kyoto is only a modest start, and that cuts in emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), will have to reach 60% or more in the next half-century to keep climate change within tolerable bounds.
The draft IPCC report concludes that the burning of fossil fuels and other forms of pollution caused by human activities have "contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years".
Dr Mike Hulme, a climate researcher at the University of East Anglia in the UK, told BBC News Online: "This draft is consistent with what the IPCC has been saying all along - there's been no massive breakthrough in climate science in the last five years."
He says forecasting techniques have been refined, allowing for a wider range of scenarios to be predicted.
"The IPCC thinks the minimum amount of warming likely over the next century is just over 1C," he said.
"But the upper temperature range is significantly higher, because we now think we could be emitting 35 to 40 gigatonnes of CO2 a year by 2100" (a gigatonne is 1bn tonnes).
At present CO2 emissions are about 6.8 gigatonnes (Gt) annually.
In 1999, another IPCC draft suggested a probable upper limit of 29 Gt by the end of the century, about 75% of the maximum mentioned in this latest draft.
An annual emission level of 29 Gt of CO2 would probably mean the mass death of forests, with the trees releasing the CO2 they had stored up, adding to global warming instead of restraining it.
It would be likely to make the eventual collapse of the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica inevitable.
That, in turn, could trigger a significant global sea-level rise, and the loss of huge and densely-populated coastal areas.
Other probable consequences of climate change on the scale suggested include crop failures, and much more extreme weather.
-- Deadly consequences (firstname.lastname@example.org), June 20, 2001.
BBC: Global Warming Could Melt Arctic
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby Scientists say climate change could have dramatic consequences for the Arctic this century.
They do not rule out the possibility that the entire Arctic could become ice-free.
They expect that, even on conservative estimates, much of its land and sea ice may melt.
And this could have unpredictable effects on ocean currents and weather systems thousands of miles away.
The scientists have written a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body bringing together many of the world's leading climatologists.
Huge loss foreseen
The report is on the impacts of climate change, the Earth's vulnerability to them, and the prospects for adaptation.
If the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide (C02) reaches twice its pre-industrial levels, the report says, then the summer sea ice in the Arctic could shrink by up to 60%.
The CO2 level has risen by about a third in the last 250 years, and many climatologists believe it could be twice its 1750 level by 2050.
The extent of the Arctic sea ice has declined by almost a third in the past 130 years, and the report says it is possible that the Arctic could lose all its ice.
The authors say: "The Greenland ice sheet suffers melting in summer at its margins. There is a trend towards an increase in area and duration of this melt . . . If warming continues, the Greenland ice sheet will melt considerably."
They are concerned as well about the permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen soil which serves as the solid foundation for buildings and other structures throughout the Arctic.
Dr Svein Tveitdal, of the UN Environment Programme's Norwegian polar centre, Grid Arendal, said: "The thawing of the permafrost will destroy buildings, roads, pipelines and transmission lines.
"In Siberia a large number of five-storey buildings have already been weakened or damaged. It is predicted that by 2030 most buildings in cities like Yakutsk and Tikisi could be lost."
Dr Klaus Toepfer, the director of Unep, said: "What happens in the Arctic and the Antarctic has implications for everyone on the planet.
"The polar regions play a crucial role in driving the circulation of the world's oceans, which in turn affect weather systems and the climate on every continent."
Professor Elizabeth Morris, of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, UK, told BBC News Online: "I'm stunned by these findings, but at the same time not really surprised.
"I trust the people involved. I'm sure they've done their modelling thoroughly. If they've really found there's going to be as much loss of ice in the Arctic as this, it will have a dramatic effect.
"I think it's quite possible that the entire Arctic could lose its ice. If it starts melting, there's nothing to stop the melting spreading the whole way across the Arctic ocean.
"One of the key findings is that 22% of the Arctic permafrost could go. There's a lot of CO2 and methane in there.
"And the IPCC says the melting could mean more fresh water entering the sea, and affecting the thermohaline circulation in the north Atlantic.
"That would affect the Gulf Stream. It's not fantasy, it's plausible - and we think it's what happened in very rapid climate changes in the past."
-- Deadly consequences (C02@emissions.com), June 20, 2001.
Hmmmm...something doesn't make sense here:
Scientists believe the level of carbon dioxide emissions being forecast in the report could trigger the mass death of forests and significant rises in sea levels, as well as crop failures and extreme weather.
Why would CO2 kill trees? Trees live on CO2!
-- Buddy (email@example.com), June 20, 2001.
Global Warming Natural, May End Within 20 Years, Says Ohio State University Researcher
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Global warming is a natural geological process that could begin to reverse itself within 10 to 20 years, predicts an Ohio State University researcher.
The researcher suggests that atmospheric carbon dioxide -- often thought of as a key "greenhouse gas" -- is not the cause of global warming. The opposite is most likely to be true, according to Robert Essenhigh, E.G. Bailey Professor of Energy Conservation in Ohio State's Department of Mechanical Engineering. It is the rising global temperatures that are naturally increasing the levels of carbon dioxide, not the other way around, he says.
Essenhigh explains his position in a "viewpoint" article in the current issue of the journal Chemical Innovation, published by the American Chemical Society.
Many people blame global warming on carbon dioxide sent into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels in man-made devices such as automobiles and power plants. Essenhigh believes these people fail to account for the much greater amount of carbon dioxide that enters -- and leaves -- the atmosphere as part of the natural cycle of water exchange from, and back into, the sea and vegetation.
"Many scientists who have tried to mathematically determine the relationship between carbon dioxide and global temperature would appear to have vastly underestimated the significance of water in the atmosphere as a radiation-absorbing gas," Essenhigh argues. "If you ignore the water, you're going to get the wrong answer."
How could so many scientists miss out on this critical bit of information, as Essenhigh believes? He said a National Academy of Sciences report on carbon dioxide levels that was published in 1977 omitted information about water as a gas and identified it only as vapor, which means condensed water or cloud, which is at a much lower concentration in the atmosphere; and most subsequent investigations into this area evidently have built upon the pattern of that report.
For his hypothesis, Essenhigh examined data from various other sources, including measurements of ocean evaporation rates, man-made sources of carbon dioxide, and global temperature data for the last one million years.
He cites a 1995 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a panel formed by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988 to assess the risk of human-induced climate change. In the report, the IPCC wrote that some 90 billion tons of carbon as carbon dioxide annually circulate between the earth's ocean and the atmosphere, and another 60 billion tons exchange between the vegetation and the atmosphere.
Compared to man-made sources' emission of about 5 to 6 billion tons per year, the natural sources would then account for more than 95 percent of all atmospheric carbon dioxide, Essenhigh said.
"At 6 billion tons, humans are then responsible for a comparatively small amount - less than 5 percent - of atmospheric carbon dioxide," he said. "And if nature is the source of the rest of the carbon dioxide, then it is difficult to see that man-made carbon dioxide can be driving the rising temperatures. In fact, I don't believe it does."
Some scientists believe that the human contribution to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, however small, is of a critical amount that could nonetheless upset Earth's environmental balance. But Essenhigh feels that, mathematically, that hypothesis hasn't been adequately substantiated.
Here's how Essenhigh sees the global temperature system working: As temperatures rise, the carbon dioxide equilibrium in the water changes, and this releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to this scenario, atmospheric carbon dioxide is then an indicator of rising temperatures -- not the driving force behind it.
Essenhigh attributes the current reported rise in global temperatures to a natural cycle of warming and cooling.
He examined data that Cambridge University geologists Nicholas Shackleton and Neil Opdyke reported in the journal Quaternary Research in 1973, which found that global temperatures have been oscillating steadily, with an average rising gradually, over the last one million years -- long before human industry began to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Opdyke is now at the University of Florida.
According to Shackleton and Opdyke's data, average global temperatures have risen less than one degree in the last million years, though the amplitude of the periodic oscillation has now risen in that time from about 5 degrees to about 10 degrees, with a period of about 100,000 years.
"Today, we are simply near a peak in the current cycle that started about 25,000 years ago," Essenhigh explained.
As to why highs and lows follow a 100,000 year cycle, the explanation Essenhigh uses is that the Arctic Ocean acts as a giant temperature regulator, an idea known as the "Arctic Ocean Model." This model first appeared over 30 years ago and is well presented in the 1974 book Weather Machine: How our weather works and why it is changing, by Nigel Calder, a former editor of New Scientist magazine.
According to this model, when the Arctic Ocean is frozen over, as it is today, Essenhigh said, it prevents evaporation of water that would otherwise escape to the atmosphere and then return as snow. When there is less snow to replenish the Arctic ice cap, the cap may start to shrink. That could be the cause behind the retreat of the Arctic ice cap that scientists are documenting today, Essenhigh said.
As the ice cap melts, the earth warms, until the Arctic Ocean opens again. Once enough water is available by evaporation from the ocean into the atmosphere, snows can begin to replenish the ice cap. At that point, the Arctic ice begins to expand, the global temperature can then start to reverse, and the earth can start re-entry to a new ice age.
According to Essenhigh's estimations, Earth may reach a peak in the current temperature profile within the next 10 to 20 years, and then it could begin to cool into a new ice age.
Essenhigh knows that his scientific opinion is a minority one. As far as he knows, he's the only person who's linked global warming and carbon dioxide in this particular way. But he maintains his evaluations represent an improvement on those of the majority opinion, because they are logically rigorous and includes water vapor as a far more significant factor than in other studies.
"If there are flaws in these propositions, I'm listening," he wrote in his Chemical Innovation paper. "But if there are objections, let's have them with the numbers."
Editor's Note: The original news release can be found at http://www.osu.edu/researchnews/archive/nowarm.htm
Fair use purposes cited.
-- Ainttellin (firstname.lastname@example.org), June 20, 2001.
Buddy, good article, gave me a chuckle. I too, don't understand the CO2 concerns. Why has that become such a big deal with the media?
-- Maria (email@example.com), June 21, 2001.