Dr. Tim Coleman
Friday, October 23, 2009
Global warming, or what is now often reffered to as global climate change, is one of the most polarizing issues of our time. In this article, I will attempt to explain the basic physics of global temperature changes, how we are attempting to measure and predict them, the alleged consequences (and even possible advantages) of global warming, the “solutions” to slow it, and the potential impacts of such measures on our lives.
1. The physics of global temperature.
The sun (shortwave) radiation warms the earth while outgoing (longwave) radiation cools the earth. The energy coming in from the sun is fairly constant, and the energy going out from the earth is proportional to the temperature on earth. The earth’s average temperature is the value that allows an exact balance between incoming shortwave, outgoing longwave, and absorbed and reflected radiation.
“Greenhouse gases”, like carbon dioxide (CO2), absorb some of the outgoing energy, keeping the earth warmer. Interestingly, high clouds do the same thing, while low clouds do the opposite. Some other gases, like sulfur compounds, reflect sunlight and keep the earth cooler. The primary assertion by those who are concerned about anthropogenic (manmade) global warming “AGW” is that the increase in atmospheric CO2 since the industrial revolution began has also caused a warming of surface temperatures through the greenhouse effect, and the warming will continue. However, natural occurrences have also caused changes in CO2 and periodic warming way before the industrial revolution. According to geologists, an ice age once brought glaciers down into the present-day northern U.S. and created the Great Lakes. The earth warmed after that, and it wasn’t a power plant causing it. Scientists also tell us of a warmer time in the past, when sea levels were much higher due to melting polar ice, when the Gulf of Mexico came up to about Montgomery (they have found manatee fossils in Auburn). Again, no power plants. Since people produce CO2 everytime we exhale air, we are also contributing to global warming by breathing. Ok, bad joke.
Also, some phenomena (volcanic eruptions, nuclear bomb tests) emit sulfur compounds and aerosols into the upper atmosphere, that absorb or reflect sunlight and cause cooling in the lower atmosphere. It may also be stated fairly, then, that the decrease in SO2 emissions due to various clean air regulations since the 1970s and the nuclear test ban has also caused warming to the planet. (The 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo produced a 1 degree F cooling over the northern hemisphere in 2 years).
Mt. Pinatubo (USGS/UND)
2. Attempts to measure and predict climate change
The measurement of atmospheric temperature is difficult. Measurements of temperature from across the globe over the past few decades have shown an increase. The amount of increase is debatable, since much of the alleged warming has been over Siberia, and in Russia many weather observation stations apparently went offline with the fall of the USSR. So, measurements in Siberia may not be reliable.
Also, most temperature measurements are taken in cities, where it is warmer anyway, especially at night, due to the urban heat island. On a clear night in the winter, it is sometimes 5 degrees warmer in Birmingham than it is in Snead. So, the temperature at Birmingham does not give an accurate picture of the temperature over central Alabama, but it goes into the surface temperature database, not Snead. Satellites likely give us the best estimates, and they show only a very slight warming. Look at the difference between surface measurements (used by IPCC) and satellite measurements (from UAH) for a developing region in East Africa:
(Christy et al. 2009)
Many climate models, similar in some ways to numerical weather prediction models like the GFS, are run to predict the future climate and its effects on rainfall patterns, local temperatures, and even biological cycles. However, we know how inaccurate our weather prediction models are at times! And, IPCC model-based temperature projections from 2000-2009 are apparently wrong.
Also, as pointed out by Alabama State Climatologist John Christy in his response to EPA assertions (for his report, click here.), running the IPCC models for the past 30 years shows that they greatly overpredict warming. Christy states “the models overstate the warming that has occurred. The clear implication of this result is that the models have an assumed sensitivity to CO2 that the real world does not.” Christy points out that the big model weakness is cloud cover. Climate models indicate that increasing CO2 causes a decrease in clouds, further warming the earth in a positive feedback. Actually, Roy Spencer of UAH has found that warming the earth increases clouds, so the earth has its own “thermostat” to cool things down if it warms.
3. The alleged consequences and unmentioned advantages of global warming
The global warming hysteria in the media really began to heat up after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. It is true that 2004 and 2005 were very active hurricane years; however, Katrina moved ashore as a Category 3 hurricane, a strength attained by an average of 2-3 hurricanes per year since 1944 in the Atlantic basin. It just so happened that Katrina hit at a location that caused catastrophic damage to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Immediately, the AGW alarmists sickeningly used this tragedy to further their viewpoint, with Barbara Streisand or some Hollywood person calling it a “Global Warming Emergency”. (Where did they, or Al Gore, get their degrees in climatology?) Despite the quiet hurricane seasons of 2006 through 2009, those claiming AGW had catastrophic consequences seemed energized after the active 2004-05 years.
There has been a lot of debate on the correlation of hurricane activity and atmospheric CO2, but this is hard to correlate since hurricane activity has been variable, with a period of about 60 years per cycle, since the late 1800’s. Hurricanes were numerous 1870-1890, then quiet in the early 1900’s, active again in the 1950’s and 1960’s, quiet from 1970 through 1994, then active most of the time since then. I don’t think the industrial output of the world has been periodic like that.
It has now gotten to the point that almost any major weather event is blamed by someone on global climate change. The snow at a National League Playoff game this year, California wildfires, and some tornadoes, droughts, and floods are blamed on AGW. These types of events have been occurring for hundreds of years. The recent usage of the phrase “global climate change” seems to protect the AGW people; they have their bases covered now. They have even discussed a scenario where global warming and ice melting will cause a problem with the Gulf Stream and an Ice Age in North America. So, even if it gets very cold for many years, they can say it was AGW.
If the most extreme predictions of AGW occur, it would be rough in many ways. Heat waves would occur, some rainfall patterns would change, and agriculture would have to adapt (peach trees might have to be moved to Tennessee, but we could grow oranges I guess). No one mentions the possible advantages of AGW, if it is occurring. Some models apprently indicate that the most intense warming would occur in the polar regions. Is that all bad? Maybe people could grow crops in Siberia and northern Canada, and sea lanes would open for shipping in the Arctic. Winters culd be warmer, lowering some energy bills.
4. “Solutions” to global climate change
Many of the solutions that are supposed to slow down AGW being proposed by environmentalists make sense whether you think AGW is a problem or not. However, politicians in the U.S. and around the world are proposing drastic changes to our energy system that could damage our already weak economy and perhaps lower the standard of living in the United States.
To me, saving energy is generally a good thing. It reduces pollution and saves me money. I have written on saving energy (click here.). I plan to do the same for winter. Also, do you really need a giant SUV to tote your kids around in? Why not just buy a dump truck and take it to a conversion shop? Carpooling, 4×10 workweeks, and telecommuting are also good ideas. Also, please stop throwing plastic bottles in my river…they make garbage cans. And I like the 15 W flourescent light bulbs that produce the equivalent light of a 100 W incandescent bulb.
Modern ways of producing electricity are also nice. Solar power is free, it just costs a fortune in most cases to convert it to electricity (I checked online and a solar panel to charge a digital camera runs over $100, so imagine how much it costs to power your home).
However, we live in 2009. We can not stop driving our cars, and we need electricity. Yet, driving and using electricity are some of the biggest ways we produce CO2 every day (besides breathing). The “cap and trade” bill coming up in Congress will create a market where many power and oil companies will eventually have to buy credits to burn coal or natural gas or oil to produce electricity or refine gasoline. However, the power company or the oil company is a business, and they will probably pass along the cost of those carbon credits to you. The house version of the bill passed in the summer also requires a massive reduction in greenhouse gases over the next few years/decades. Where will the power come from, then?
I suppose we could replace coal-fired plants with nuclear ones, at a cost of billions of dollars (that we will all have to pay). What about solar, or wind? Right now, electricity in Alabama costs about 7 cents per kWh. Solar energy costs about 30 cents per kWh, and wind power can be produced in windy areas (like the northern Plains or Northeast) for 5-7 cents per kWh, but it is not windy enough in most of the Southeast for wind power. Transmission of the power from wind farms or solar panels 1,000 miles way would greatly increase the cost, not only due to the cost of the transmission system (one article estimates $80 billion for the eastern U.S. just in transmission system costs like power lines), but also due to losses of power due to resistance along the power lines. However you slice this, electricity prices would likely increase significantly.
5. Effects on our lives
According to the IPCC, “meaningful climate mitigation” would cost approximately 1.7% of world GDP. Apply this to the U.S., and it would cost us $238 billion per year. Averaged out to $800 per person, or $270 per month for a family of four. And this assumes other countries with rapidly-growing energy use like China and India would follow our lead. The US government has placed lower costs on the “cap and trade” bill, varying from about $100 to $1,000 per year. Here is a quote from President Obama, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2008:
“Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket,” Obama told the Chronicle . “Coal-powered plants, you know, natural gas, you name it, whatever the plants were, whatever the industry was, they would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that money on to consumers.”
The AGW debate, and any criticism or resistance to it, often produces outrage. James Hansen, an outspoken climatologist from NASA, recently stated in a letter to The Guardian in England,
“The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.”
What? Death trains? I pass by Birmingport on the way to the river often, and I see trains full of coal that goes to Miller or Gorgas or one of the other plants nearby, often on a barge (are those now “death barges” too?), and I would call them life trains, life barges, and factories for life. How would all the premature babies born in Birmingham hospitals, or the heart attack and other critical care patients, live without the electricity that feeds the hospitals? How would we air condition our homes in summer and heat them in winter? I’m sure burning firewood is not more efficient than using a heat pump. And how many lives of the elderly and young were saved by that coal during the heat wave of 2007, or on the morning it dropped to 12 degrees in Birmingham this year?
The bottom line is that we are likely using at least partially inaccurate data, fed into possibly inaccurate models, to predict rapid global warming. Is it possible? Yes. But is it certain, or even likely? We don’t know. And are willing to bet up to $238 billion per year to TRY to slow something down that may not happen, at least not nearly the rate some say it will? And are we willing to do all this knowing that it may not even matter very much if other large nations don’t go along with us?
If you’re worried about global warming too much, you could always buy some farmland in northern Canada in hopes that it will someday be warm, buy a $25,000 (or more) solar panel system for your backyard so if power bills double you can go off grid, or acquire some land across US 98 from the Gulf, in case sea level rises 2 feet and the condos of 2050 will be over there, and your great-grandchildren will be wealthy. In all seriousness, we should do all we can to save energy and protect the environment, but in my opinion, not at the cost of our livelihood or our national security.
My opinions do not necessarily reflect those of my primary employer.