Climate Control

Monday 21st December 2009

I’ve said before here that I don’t know much about climate change. In fact what I said was “I don’t know whether it’s happening and really I don’t care, because it’s irrelevant”, which taken out of context says something which I didn’t intend to say, but ho hum.

Anyhow, I was reading up on the science behind climate change the other day. I was reading up on how human activity causes it, and it’s fairly interesting. It also gave me a fairly large headache, because I don’t really understand it. I understand the argument thats being made, but I don’t see how the evidence which is being presented supports that argument.

Before I continue, I’m not writing from a “boo climate change isnt happening” standpoint, because thats stupid. I just don’t understand the science. That could be (probably is) because I’m missing something, and that’s ok because I’m not a climatologist. I’m kinda hoping that by writing this, someone will write a comment which says “ah, but you’re forgetting this…” and it’ll suddenly make sense.

Ok. So looking at the data from ice cores or wherever for CO2 in the atmosphere and comparing it with the temperature of the Earth, does show a clear correlation. Historically, when there’s been an increase in the Earth’s temperature, the increase in CO2 levels comes after the temperature increase. Now this makes sense, because theres lots of CO2 stored in ice and water, so when the temperature goes up (due to, say, fluctuations in the Earth’s orbit), obviously CO2 is going to be released. And CO2 is a greenhouse gas, so clearly increased levels of CO2 help to warm the Earth’s surface, amplifying the temperature increase which has caused the extra CO2 to be released. Eventually the thing which caused the Earth to warm up in the first place stops having such an effect, so eventually the temperature of the Earth goes down again. As the temperature goes down more CO2 is dissolved in water and ice, so there’s less in the atmosphere. As I understand it, that’s the science which explains the relationship between CO2 and temperature, right upto mankind having any appreciable effect on either.

Ok, some facts which I think everyone will agree on.In the last 150-200 years, humans have put a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. More CO2 in the atmosphere will help warm the Earth up. The Earth has warmed up – more than it has in the “recent” past – in the last  few hundred years.

However. We’re told that the current increase in the Earth’s temperature is entirely due to the increase in CO2 emissions. I don’t see where the evidence is which suggests that CO2 is such a large driver of the temperature of the Earth. If CO2 in the atmosphere plays as important a part in this as people claim it does, how come the Earth’s temperature has dropped in the past when CO2 levels were high? If a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere was that catastrophic, surely in the past when there were high levels of CO2, the temperature would have remained high once the original warming action was removed?

Why are we so sure that the current increase in temperature is purely down to CO2? Why have we ruled out the possibility that other – perhaps natural – phenomena are taking place, as they have done for thousands of years?

(Ego, perhaps?)

This isn’t to say that CO2 doesn’t play a role or that we should ignore what we’re putting into the air. If natural processes are responsible for some of the increase in temperature, then clearly we’re responsible for the rest of it. I just think that perhaps simply focussing on CO2 as the silver bullet is a really silly – maybe even dangerous – thing to do. As I’ve written before, the thing which really scares me is the fact that we’re running out of energy. Distracting ourselves with jollies to Copenhagen may make us feel like we’re doing something, but does it really solve the problem? Irrespective of whether the science is right, it annoys me that so many people have simplified the issue so much, to the point that they’re not even trying to solve the right problem. Stop CO2 emissions with sustainable fuels. Problems solved. As I said in the last post, that should be our Apollo…

In a comment on Callan’s blog, I likened Copenhagen to rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. That’s not true – it’s more trying to pump the water out to keep the ship from sinking. I mean it’ll work, albeit at great expense and inconvenience. But it doesn’t really solve the problem of the holes beneath the water, does it?

Posted at 1:44 am | Posted In: EngineeringPoliticsRant Tagged:



Monday 21st December 2009, 1:22 pm

Pascal’s Wager: The safest course is to take action – if they still can have an effect then it’ll be worth it. If they can’t, then we’re doomed anyway so we haven’t lost anything. I take it you’re familiar with the original Pascal’s Wager?

I will write a proper comment to this entry but I want to be able to think about it first so that it is well-reasoned argument, not a I-have-a-point-to-make-but-I’m-hungry-and-soup-is-nearly-on-the-table garbled reponse!


Monday 21st December 2009, 2:21 pm

Yeah, I’m familiar with it, I’m just not sure how it applies. At no point have I advocated not taking action. In fact the point I’ve tried to make in three posts now is that nowhere enough is being done!


Monday 21st December 2009, 6:05 pm

OK, here’s a few things that I’ve thought of in response to this, but I should add a disclaimer here and now that these are not the full arguments and are not everything-I-think-about-climate-change-ever because that might take some time…

1. I agree with you about sustainable fuels. However I think that’s a very simplistic argument that all problems ever can be stopped by using them. Will they provide enough energy? Can the world afford the initial investment? Great for the likes of us and America but try telling a starving family that they must swap their wood now for a solar panel in five years time. Are they actually that sustainable – after all, you need materials to make the panels, turbines etc..

2. CO2 is not the only culprit. According to my Dad, methane is an equally large if not bigger problem.

3. Even focussing back on CO2, we produce it in other ways than simply burning fuel. Plastics, for instance, and anything that has been processed or crafted on a large-scale will have involved large amounts of materials and energy in its production.

4. Joined-up thinking. If our solution is to convert to sustainable fuels, then we will have to adapt our systems and way of living in order to do so. We need to put ourselves into the position where it is a realistic option.

5. Sustainable energy = better energy than fossil fuel energy. Less energy full stop would be better still.

6. The point of the Copenhagen protests was to put pressure on world leaders to come up with legally-binding agreements on energy reduction. Not a distraction if it set into place a concerted world effort. Alas, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

7. Can’t we just look after our world to make it a better place, climate change or no? Or is that too optimistic about human nature?


Tuesday 22nd December 2009, 1:30 pm

1. No, it’s not simplistic in the least, and the questions you’ve posed don’t back up your assertion in any way, shape or form. They’re engineering problems. I’m not suggesting that it’ll solve “all problems ever”, but it’ll solve a lot more than just “cut greenhouse emissions!”, which is all governments and climate protesters seem to care about. That’s a much more simplistic assertion.

2. Yeah, that’s what I was trying to get at. I’d still suggest that there could be some other factor working with anthropogenic climate change, but I’ll also say that I’m not a climatologist…

3. IIRC the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions is in energy use. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with plastics.

4. Yep, and my point is that this isn’t happening!

5. It would be better if energy was used more efficiently. I dont think we should aim to use less energy than we do now though, because I think it’s naive to suggest that’s ever going to happen (what with expansion in China, for instance). Using sustainable energy more efficiently, should be the aim.

6. Haha! I wasn’t even referring to the protests. I think you’ve forgotten that there was actually a conference happening at the same time as the protests, and that was the rather more important thing to which I was referring. As for the protests, from what I can gather they were protesting for the world leaders to, uh, do what they were doing. So thousands of people thought that made travelling to Copenhagen worthwhile? Surely thats exactly the sort of waste of energy that people should be avoiding?

7. That was kinda the point.

From what I can gather, it’s like you’re trying to say that we shouldn’t be looking at alternative sources of energy, because that would be difficult. I don’t think thats what you mean though…
What I’m advocating will help cut greenhouse emissions (and thats global warming sorted), provide us with energy for the foreseeable future (looming energy crisis solved), and potentially reduce our dependance on OPEC and unstable/unpleasant countries (stronger political stance). It’ll be expensive (and granted that’s probably a killer at the moment, but then how much do the current measures cost?), but it’s something that needs to happen and I can’t see any reason why people would argue otherwise.

On a tangent, it annoys me that the tone of most climate change campaigning seems to be that we’re bad people for living in the developed age. That we should be harking back to a different time, regressing our technology. It angers me because it’s so regressive, so opposed to the spirit which brought mankind to this point in the first place. We should be trying to solve the problem through some amazing technology. Why havent governments been pouring more money into fusion reactors, for instance?

Andy Simpson

Tuesday 22nd December 2009, 4:07 pm

The problem with climate science is that it’s enormously complicated; from what I understand (which isn’t much) there are a huge number of inputs and variables and both positive and negative feedbacks.

For instance, you’ve got solar variability, the El Nino effect, release of CO2 from the oceans, water vapour, stimulation of plant growth by increased CO2, the effect of melting of ice upon average albedo, etc. etc. These all stack up on top of each other, so it’s really hard to go in there and isolate just what is being changed by humans dumping a lot of extra CO2 into the system.

The complicated dynamics of this system is (I think…) why you can see periods of reducing temperature even when CO2 is going up, because if you happen to hit a period of reduced solar activity, average temperatures are going to go down over that period, for example.

Correspondingly, the climate models and simulations have to (and do) attempt to model all these factors. This is why they can rule out it being a natural process, all (known) natural processes are already accounted for.

Anyways, the way I like to think about it is that we’re killing two birds with one stone. The fossil fuels are finite, so we need to conserve what we have left, and transition to other energy sources that are sustainable in the longer term. This has the side-effect of reducing CO2 emissions, so we’re all good.

Personally, I think we’re fucked. Totally, completely fucked. The end of civilisation as we know it is coming, and I’m just glad that I’ll probably be dead before it happens. The only saving grace we have is if fusion power works, and works well. Otherwise, the world is going to go to shit as the world goes to war for the last drops of oil. The energy use growth curves permit no other option, especially with the total fucking lack of any political will the world’s leaders managed to demonstrate at Copenhagen.


Tuesday 22nd December 2009, 4:51 pm

If I’m interpreting everything you’re saying correctly Dickie (which I clearly didn’t with your Copenhagen comments), I think where opinions differ the most on this is point 5: the level of individual responsibility in use of resources. Si?

Oh, and no, I’m definitely not saying that we shouldn’t be looking at alternative sources of energy. I just don’t think they will be enough if the corresponding lifestyle changes don’t happen as well.


Tuesday 22nd December 2009, 4:53 pm

And yes, I guess that may mean some ‘regression’ in your terms. Personally I think that our society might be a happier place for it…


Tuesday 22nd December 2009, 5:40 pm

“Anyways, the way I like to think about it is that we’re killing two birds with one stone. The fossil fuels are finite, so we need to conserve what we have left, and transition to other energy sources that are sustainable in the longer term. This has the side-effect of reducing CO2 emissions, so we’re all good.”
That’s exactly what I mean. I’d like to think we’re not totally fucked, but we probably are (hence the “basically we’re all fucked” category on this blog…), and the reason is energy. If the politics of the last decade have been partly influenced by oil, I shudder to think what the next one and the ones after that will be like.

Lucy, I’m not really sure that we disagree all that much tbh. I didn’t explain myself well in the last comment. I think individuals and companies should take more responsibility of their energy use, yes. My point was that even with improved efficiency, I don’t think that as a planet we’ll use less energy, and I don’t think we should be aiming for that either. Maybe that’ll mean the EU uses 80% of the energy it does at the moment, whilst China uses more energy than now which balances out our reduction. I don’t think it matters if we use more energy, as long as the source of that energy is sustainable and not damaging.

“And yes, I guess that may mean some ‘regression’ in your terms. Personally I think that our society might be a happier place for it…”
I think we’re amazingly privelidged to live in a time of such technological advancement, but I freely admit that I’m a massive technophile :)
(and if we’re privelidged, then it’s criminal that our society is fucking it up for future generations)

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