Wednesday, August 04, 2010

An introduction to climate change: graphs and data

Climate change: it's not rocket science; it's considerably more complex.

The sheer mass of data collected across the globe that contributes to a picture of a world being warmed predominantly by human activity is stunning. This is not just surface atmospheric temperatures (which receives the most attention), but atmospheric temperatures at a range of greater heights, ocean temperatures (again, not just on the surface, but at various levels), precipitation patterns, humidity levels, sea ice extent, area and volume, land ice volume and area, glacier flow rates, extent of permafrost, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and various other greenhouse gases, methane levels in the ocean, acidity of the ocean, migration patterns of birds and insects, flowering dates of hundreds of plant species, emergence dates of hundreds of species of insects, length of growing seasons, geographic distribution and prevalence of thousands of species, river flow rates and peak flow dates, satellite measurements of temperatures and radiation levels - and much, much more! And all this is before we even start talking about the various proxies that give us insight into climate conditions prior to widespread measurements.

With all this supporting data, it's no surprise that 97% of active climatologists think the theory of anthropogenic climate change is the best explanation and that almost every scientific body of national or international standing has been willing to risk their precious reputation by agreeing.

Here is a video that gives you a taste of just some of this enormous store of data and the clear pattern that can be seen throughout. Of course there is regional and annual variation, but the overall picture is apparent to even the untrained eye. If you prefer text, this gives a good brief overview.

See here for the start of a series that gives more of my take on climate change.

10 comments:

Luke said...

Hi Byron,

Somewhat tangentially but related to the overall direction of where these and other posts are going.

Broadly how are you framing the issue of climate change? More specifically; Are we as Christians working to preserve the climate as it is now, was or will be? Also the making of culture changes the environment to some extent, at what point is that balance wrong?

(BTW I share your presupposition that Christians should care for our natural environment but might differ in how I express that.)

David Palmer said...

Hi Luke,

You ask good questions and I will allow Byron to answer them.

I would like to make observations of my own which reflect in part on the ongoing conversation that Byron and I have undertaken mainly on his blog but also to a degree relate to the points that you raise.

I actually think it is hard to be too definitive on the question, “what is the Christian response to climate change”.

Byron would say that drastic action is required to cut CO2 emissions, thinking about the possible catastrophic repercussions a la Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth and he would dovetail in things like a simple Christian material minimalist lifestyle as part of the solution.

From where I am this is far too simplistic and doesn’t really engage the real world.

The real world tells us of the tremendous improvement in peoples’ lives in the West (Europe, USA, Canada, Australia/NZ and more recently Japan) – here I’m not just thinking about TV and the like, rather I’m thinking of children and mothers surviving childbirth and the general decrease in infant poverty over the past 100 years, better health, longer lives, better nutrition and so on. Central to all of this was the development and use of energy, principally in the generation of electricity, energy derived from fossil based fuels.

In the real world fossil fuels have been a real boon and underwritten all our lives, those of us fortunate to live in the West, in positive, good material ways. For this we should be thankful including us Christians who have shared in this material prosperity.

The downside is rising atmospheric CO2 levels which is linked to rising temperatures, which in my mind has one major risk factor attached to it – rising sea levels through the melting of Greenland and Antartic land based ice layers. Byron in this post and I presume succeeding ones wants to paint this in all its gory detail.

Personally whilst I accept a link between CO2 and temperature, I’m sceptical of the scarier scenarios that Byron buys into and I’m definitely more optimistic about future generations being able to deal with any problems arising.

But for the sake of argument let’s say Byron and his 97% of climate scientists are right
(by the way I question the veracity of 97% because of this kind of commentary going in the blogosphere at the present time and again, by the way, Coming Climate Crisis by Claire Parkinson a noted climatologist specialising in polar sea ice who whilst accepting the climate change consensus also expresses deep unease over the uncertainly of all the prognostications, and worries about the way the arguments of those in the climate community – the 3% who disagree with the consensus are treated). To me this is a major problem with the picture that Byron paints – there is little room for uncertainty. My science/engineering background tells me that uncertainty is a constant and under no circumstance should be brushed under the carpet – it is precisely the issue of uncertainty, to say nothing of data manipulation, that has undone the IPCC’s hockey stick representation of historic global temperature, but I digress.

But as I say, let’s say Byron and his 97% scientists are correct about a catastrophic future.

So what.

tbc

David Palmer said...

Continuing:

What can be done?

This is the really interesting question.

China, India, Brazil, South Africa (and Africa if it could only get its house in order - an unlikely proposition any time soon) have one goal in mind, dragging their people out of poverty. As Christians surely this is something we applaud.

How can they drag their people out of poverty?

Answer: energy, more specifically electricity to every village, every home.

Where do you get energy from:

Fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are the cheapest, actually the only viable source (though still very expensive for the developing world) – I’ll come back to nuclear.

Fossil fuels of course are a finite source and by the end of the present century are likely to be near exhaustion which does put an upper limit on CO2 emissions. But in the meantime China is quarrying Australia amongst a number of other countries to feed their coal fired power stations – currently being added to at the rate of two 500W+ power stations per week

So regardless of what the West might do, and remembering Chinese CO2 emissions overtook US emissions 3 years ago, all fossil fuels will be mined and converted into energy with CO2 as a by product. Nothing surer.

Actually the West is not going to do too much about reducing its emissions because a) Australia excepted, the nations of the West are all too deeply into debt, disgracefully so, mostly to the Asians, b) there is just so much acceptable limitation to their own use of energy – here think increasing poverty in the West and c) with the exception of nuclear energy which has its own problems, there is no cost effective alternative source of energy to replace fossil fuel.

Because fossil fuel stocks are finite, the biggest challenge looking ahead is not so much CO2 emissions, but finding a cheap and therefore affordable alternative source of energy.

That is going to be the world’s big challenge this century.

Nuclear energy is definitely in the frame but the technology needs to be downsized and cheapened for widespread use, and people will have to get over their aversion to nuclear. BTW, China (again) has announced plans for 100 nuclear power plants and has ordered prototypes from all the manufacturers for assessment on how to proceed.

Windfarms are basically a scam. I have written previously why this is so.

Solar energy is unfortunately low intensity energy and in need of technological breakthrough.

Carbon capture and storage seems to me to be fraught with difficulty.

So to summarise, science is not really the issue. Byron and his 97% scientists may be right, but so what?

It’s what is to be done and that involves politics, economics and technology – this is where the action is.

We need technological solutions for a long term, low cost source of energy. This is why I support a small energy related tax with the full proceeds of the tax dedicated to finding long term, low cost multiple sources of energy.

I recommend Roger Pielke Jr’s recent speech found here - I might add Pielke fully endorses IPCC projections on temperature, though generally not on the associated catastrophic scenarios.

David Palmer said...

Speaking of catastrophes, re the sudden "miraculous clean up of the gulf BP oil disaster":

"It was captured. It was skimmed. It was burned. It was contained. Mother Nature did her part," said Carol Browner, White House energy adviser on NBC

We are always prone to overplay our own importance and underplay the recuperative power of nature.

byron smith said...

Climate change: it's not rocket science; it's considerably more complex.
But the big picture is actually relatively simple and back of the envelope calculations done 35 years ago were close to correct.

Luke & David - I'll respond soon. I've been away and there is much to catch up on.

David Palmer said...

Hi Byron,

No hurry.

I might recede for a while. I've cleared the decks (3 day Colloquium over - went well, 250 registrants), and intend writing for AP and Eternity on climate change - will do longer paper and then abstract for articles.

I know I've been trying, but I've greatly appreciated the interaction with you.

Also I registered answeringtheatheists.com.au as a website several years ago for a blog but have had too much on the go to get it up and running. My goal is to have it up by the end of the year, though my interests are considerably wider than atheism.

Will keep in contact.

byron smith said...

Sorry for the long delays in answering these comments.

I'll get on to answering David in due time.

@Luke: how am I framing the issue of climate change? You can read a series I wrote on Jesus and climate change (each post links to all the others down the bottom).

I think that aiming to preserve a climate something like the only climate under which human civilisation has flourished and under which we have invested trillions of dollars/pounds/euros/yuan/yen, etc. might not be a bad idea. There is something of a consensus that once we get more than about 1.5ºC (or perhaps 2ºC if we're feeling lucky) above the 1961-90 baseline, then the number and severity of detrimental effects will multiply. But even this goal may mean we lose the Greenland icesheet (over centuries) and continue to undermine biodiversity quite significantly (amongst many other negative outcomes).

I am not against the changing of ecological systems by humans and don't think that in itself it is wrong. There are both qualitative and quantitative considerations. Qualitatively, even small changes can be expressions of human pride, arrogance and sinfulness where they are motivated by greed, involve oppression or somehow reflect a failure of faith, hope and love. Quantitatively, the changes we've collectively made to the planet are truly staggering. I'm intending to put together a post at some stage that simply lists some of these changes, and many of them are significantly for the worse, if measured either in terms of the sustainability of human society or in terms of God's blessing on non-human life. We're undermining both our own flourishing and the possibility of the flourishing of the rest of the community of creation on this planet.

byron smith said...

David - I’m thinking of children and mothers surviving childbirth and the general decrease in infant poverty over the past 100 years, better health, longer lives, better nutrition and so on. Central to all of this was the development and use of energy, principally in the generation of electricity, energy derived from fossil based fuels.
Improvements in hygiene and sanitation (and to a lesser extent, in medicine) were responsible for improving infant mortality rates and health. Better nutrition is not a simple picture given the obesity epidemic in the developed world. Yes, we have access to more food, and to a richer variety of food, but there are a number of traditional diets that are healthier than a typical western diet.

I have never denied that fossil fuels have not brought benefits. But they are a double-edged sword, and we're starting to see some of the serious downsides. There is no reversing of time's arrow or undoing of history, no question of returning to pre-industrial days. The future can only be post-industrial. How will we negotiate that transition? By acknowledging the destructive dangers of continued amplification of fossil fuel use or seeking to wean ourselves off them in the fastest and least disruptive ways we can imagine? I have never pretended that it will be easy or simple, nor that it will solve all our personal and social ills. It will be difficult and dangerous, but less so than the grand experiment with the world's ecosystems and climate we are currently conducting.

Apart from a very brief review when it first came out in 2006, I've never quoted or used An Inconvenient Truth.

rising temperatures, which in my mind has one major risk factor attached to it – rising sea levels through the melting of Greenland and Antartic land based ice layers.
I'm glad you acknowledge one risk. Now you can start to read about all the others: food instability, crop yield reductions, heat waves, flooding, biodiversity losses, habitat loss, droughts, extreme weather events, precipitation changes and associated water stress and more. Climate change is a threat multiplier. It takes other issues that we're already struggling with (e.g. biodiversity or water stress) and makes them more difficult, often in unpredictable ways.

To me this is a major problem with the picture that Byron paints – there is little room for uncertainty.
Can you show me anywhere where I have denied that there are large uncertainties? Indeed, this is part of my very point. Climate change may turn out to be only "very bad" rather than the IPCC's predictions that it will be "very, very bad". But then again, it might turn out to be considerably worse again than the IPCC. Assuming that future generations will be able to cope with whatever mess we create is irresponsible.

byron smith said...

BTW David, you speak very confidently of my position for someone who has also acknowledged that you aren't paying much attention.

dragging their people out of poverty
We've talked about poverty and its links to climate change a number of times before. In short, climate change is a threat precisely to the poorest and most vulnerable and the burden of responsibility lies first and foremost with the nations who have contributed most of the problem (i.e. the developed world). The BASIC nations you mention are indeed developing fast, but remember that China is investing twice as much as anyone else (and more than the US and Europe combined) into renewable energy.

all fossil fuels will be mined and converted into energy with CO2 as a by product. Nothing surer.
David, you accuse me of being a pessimist! :-)

So to summarise, science is not really the issue. Byron and his 97% scientists may be right, but so what? It’s what is to be done and that involves politics, economics and technology – this is where the action is.
And ethics! :-)

We need technological solutions for a long term, low cost source of energy.
And if one doesn't exist? I'm not saying we shouldn't look, but time's running out, so perhaps we should also consider what it will mean to adapt to a much harsher world with less cheap energy available and what we can do now to minimise the difficulties that will result.

byron smith said...

The vast majority of the oil still in the Gulf, says NOAA, plus a plume 22 miles long in the depths that is not likely to break down anytime soon.