Friday, 20 November 2009

climate change - we've been working on it for years

This has gone past being a hot topic and become something of a religious discussion, science is cast aside and belief is the rule of the land.

Perhaps one or the reasons that Science is cast aside is that it would seem that the vast majority of people (including our leaders) are quite simply ignorant. They've spent far too much of their lives learning the importance of which brand of suit matters, what is the fashionable thing to be saying or some other strictly intra-human stuff.

People pat them selves on the back and marvel at the advances of the modern world when they are fundamentally so ignorant of the materials our "modern world" is built on they don't even know how the match they light their cigarette with works or even how to brew some of that beer they are drinking.

Heck many people struggle with understanding price / quality relationships in what they buy and some people are starting to forget why salt is a preservative...

So is it any wonder if you view it this way that understanding climate change has descended into an argument sounding like a pair of children repeating:

did not
did too
did not

ad infinitum

Question, why do there have to be predominately such polarized views in the community about this topic. In reality you don't need to be a genius to see that not only are things changing but we are changing things.

Well if you look at children you get the answer: yell louder and you win

Don't get me wrong, children are highly intelligent ... its just that they're both ignorant and as yet have not acquired wisdom (you know, that stuff which comes from built up experience and reflection)

To not see these things you must live in a mega city like New York, LA, London ... hardly ever leave or have anything to do with the world outside your neighborhood. Chances are, that even then you'll notice something, but equally you'll probably find some structure or fiction to help you believe what ever you want to.

Amid the guff that gets touted in the media and the even bigger circus of parliament some people are actually plugging away trying to understand what we see and make sense of it. Last week I read just such a publication in the Journal of Climatic Change (ISSN 0165-0009 ) by William F Ruddiman. He is from University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904, U.S.A. and published a peer reviewed article called "THE ANTHROPOGENIC GREENHOUSE ERA BEGAN THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO" (that title is a link to the full text)

I thought his hypothesis made so much sense that I wanted to bring it a little more mainstream than among researchers. Hence this blog article.

A good summary of his view of this comes from his abstract:

The [human generation of CO2] era is generally thought to have begun 150 to 200 years ago, when the industrial revolution began ... A different hypothesis is posed here: anthropogenic emissions of these gases first altered atmospheric concentrations thousands of years ago. This hypothesis is based on three arguments:

(1) Cyclic variations in CO2 and CH4 driven by Earth-orbital changes during the last
350,000 years predict decreases ... yet the CO2 trend began an unexplained increase 8000 years ago, and the CH4 trend did so 5000 years ago.

(2) Published explanations for these gas increases based on natural forces can be rejected based on paleoclimatic evidence.

(3) A wide array of archeological, cultural, historical and geologic evidence points
to viable explanations tied to human changes resulting from: early agriculture in Eurasia, including the start of forest clearance by 8000 years ago and of rice irrigation by 5000 years ago.

now, this makes more sense to me ... especially when you consider the following:

The first problem with this "industrial era" view is that it neglects the impact of time. Per-annum rates of carbon release in pre-industrial times may have been smaller by an average factor of 10 or even considerably more, but the cumulative emissions could still have been enormous because of the much longer interval of time over which they operated.

The pre-industrial "tortoise" (starting very early, even though at a slow rate) can cumulatively outdo the industrial "hare" (faster rates, but starting much later) by a factor of two:

7800 years × 0.04 GigaTon of C per yr average = 320 GtC cumulative total
200 years × 0.8 GigaTon C per yr average = 160 GtC cumulative total.

This all sounds so plausible, simple and fits the facts without distortion it is quite compelling.

So, who'd have thought, all those people for the "romantic" notions of keeping the land as it is, trying to disturb minimally and live in "harmony" may have just made sense.

The bottom line of this article to me is:
  • human activity is a significant contributing factor to our present changes
  • its not just what we are doing now, its what we've been doing for ages
  • that we are doing it more and faster just has to stop

but as a friend of mine says ... the entire system is self correcting. The correction however means that we just may make the place very ugly by our standards and it may not support humans anymore.

We need to move beyond stupid carbon trading schemes, pull ourselves out or our past and move forward with modern solutions.

Our ancestors burnt wood because it was all they had ... we now have:
  • energy from solar (space based solar stations are an attractive solution)
  • more efficient methods (even if they are using more energy in total its often less per person)

so what's holding us back? Is it politics, economics or just ignorance?

Post Scriptum

I thought I would mention here after the brief comments made below that I am neither a believer or a non-believer. I try as I can to understand the issues at hand with an eye to the rational. I can say for sure that I do not like the many changes which we humans are clearly to blame for such as:
  • clearing (try this Australian Government link)
  • soil salinity
  • urban sprawl destroying the already reducing habitat of animals such as Koala
  • destruction of ecosystems due to excessive waterway adaptations
I certainly bemoan the lack of science in what often embarrassingly passes for Environmental Science. Hopefully this young discipline will manage to pass to a more mature phase in the future.

Maybe everyone wants to live in places like this:



but myself, I prefer to live in places where I can live like this

and do stuff like this:


and go spend time in places like this



ian said...

As a physicist who has attempted to keep a balanced view, I have serious reservations about the current climate debate.

* All climate change models are unproven. It would require decades of elapsed time to validate any model. It is such a difficult, poorly understood and evolving science that we cannot rely on these predictions.

* Over the last 11 there has been no observed increase in global temeratures, contradicting the models.

* The relation between man-made C02 and global warming is not a proven fact it is speculation. Although not an unreasonable speculation, investing huge resources on a speculation is questionable.

* It is actually only a relatively small number of scientists making the claims, others just accept these 'experts'.

* 'Experts' predictions are very often wrong. In the 1970's a new ice age was predicted. Financial experts did not predict the current economic crash.

* There are too many vested interests, doomsayers and impassioned unquestioning followers for there to be a balanced argument which only leads me to be even more questioning.

Politicians, news editors and celebrities need a cause to follow. The pragmatic, reasoned view is not for them.

obakesan said...


thanks for your contribution.

When I wrote this blog article my intention was simply to bring to attention what I thought was an interesting and different take on the issues, as perhaps I was expressing despair at the state of the discussion.

I wasn't trying to write in a balanced and academic manner. I'm glad you lifted that tone a little.

I'm sure you know more of me than I do of you, so you will know from my public profile that I have some engagement in environmental studies as well as other sciences.

Particularly I find myself in accord with your point on CO2 being the culprit being a good speculation. Right now we are all speculating. We quite simply don't have a lot of good information to form conclusions.

There are so many points of significance that I would love to mention, but I fear that would end up in some dissertation which would have no influence and remain unread. Points which are perhaps related perhaps unrelated.

On the topic of modeling, I have this view of an esky which is more or less sealed and contains ice and water but is slowly melting. Intellectually we know that the contents must be getting warmer, but monitoring this is difficult. We may see warming and cooling of points as ice melts and collapses. Depending on where one places thermometers it may be hard to determine average temperatures.

Another concept is the amounts of deforestation mainly due to land clearing and change of land types. This is something which has been happening for centuries and continues to happen at an accelerating pace through out the world. This can't have no effect.

Personally I can't be sure what we are doing is the cause but I can say we don't seem to be doing everything the best way possible.

I am not sure if its due to our socio economic structure or what, but every time I see wasted energy and wasted resource I think "a plant which had a metabolism like that would not be successful.


Noons said...

There is no conclusive proof that excess CO2 production by humans is a major contributor to global warming -if such a thing actually exists.

This came around recently:


Let's not confuse pollution and other obvious environmental degradation - of which there is LOTS - with CO2 or global warming/cooling. Each is a separate item. Too easily we think of them as one and same.

has nothing to do with CO2 and global warming, but I'm willing to bet it'll have a far more reaching impact on all of us than anything you and I can burn in our entire lifetime...

Next time you're in Oz, look up Ian Plimer and is book. Eye opener.

obakesan said...

I agree with your point about confusing issues, and suspect that many people are using this as an agenda for their various issues. Climate change is a straw man argument set up to justify actions.

I don't consider myself a sceptic or a believer. The central tenet of my masters thesis (available by following the links in my profile) was that over consumption and poor planning was central to the water crisis of 2003 in South East Queensland. I found insufficient evidence to make a clear case for climate change. See this blog post.

I would like to understand the issues and work accordingly.

If I have an agenda it would be that we stop destroying wrecking the place and start living in it nicely. This is not incompatible with living well and healthy.

A quick review of the first 2 centuries of development in Australia for instance Powell, J. M. (1976). Environmental Management in Australia,1788-1914: guardians, improvers and profit : an introductory survey. makes a good start to reading.