Uncharted Territory

July 13, 2010

Managing Climate Expectations

It’s rather worrying, when you think about it, that the Himalayan glaciers may be completely gone by 2350, according to the IPCC. The only trouble is, nobody cares, because they erroneously claimed they’d be gone by 2035.

I’m becoming more and more concerned by the tendency of climate change cheerleaders to try to find worse and worse evidence of climate change. Consider a couple of recent posts at Realclimate.

First we have  Recent trends in CO2 emissions. The lead author is Corinne le Quéré who is an oceanographer, not an economist.

The argument is over the extent to which actual carbon emissions have exceeded the IPCC emission scenarios – the authors of the post seem to be keen to emphasise the overshoot. But these scenarios are purely designed to illustrate how atmospheric CO2 and other GHG levels might increase over the rest of the century and therefore how much warming might occur, if corrective action isn’t taken. They are guesstimates, with no basis in science, social or otherwise.

My personal opinion is that the scenarios have outlived their useful life, since the key determinant of future emissions will be the effectiveness of corrective action, not whether future economic growth is “fossil fuel intensive” or whatever.

In 2008, as discussed in the post, the actual emissions were higher than nearly all the IPCC examples. But towards the end of 2008, remember, the global economy fell off a cliff. The economic growth and hence emission levels in 2008 were clearly unsustainable. The Realclimate post also notes – rather than emphasises – that projected emissions in 2009 exceed the bulk of the scenario projections by less than was the case for 2008. No further projections are given.

Clearly, we can only determine how close the scenarios are to reality over a long period, and especially by taking account of the business cycle.

Why we’re even discussing the fit between the IPCC scenarios and actual emissions in a given year is beyond me.

It seems to me there is a dangerous tendency on the part of advocates for action to mitigate climate change to promote data showing the situation is worse than expected. This is unwise. It polarises the debate even more. Scrupulous objectivity is essential.

The worst example of “worse than expected” syndrome is the reporting of Arctic sea-ice, as I highlighted on here some time ago (subsequent posts are linked via the comments).

A number of commentators, such as Joe Romm [see Note], report the state of the Arctic sea ice on an almost daily basis (the NSIDC provides daily data, which I see now show the ice extent is now greater than in 2007 – perhaps we should revise our whole opinion on global warming!).

When I first started investigating the possible natural cycle in the Arctic sea-ice back in February, I noted:

“If I were a climate specialist about to make a song and dance over a particular piece of evidence for GW, I think I’d make pretty sure the phenomenon in question hadn’t happened before.”

I’m currently trying to collate my thoughts on the AMO – blogging has its plus side, but it’s pants for organising information – and I’ve come across a few tidbits in the IPCC’s latest report (AR4).  Here’s what the Technical Summary has to say (section TS.3.1.2, p.37):

The warming in the last 30 years is widespread over the globe, and is greatest at higher northern latitudes. The greatest warming has occurred in the NH winter (DJF) and spring (MAM).  Average arctic temperatures have been increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world in the past 100 years. However, arctic temperatures are highly variable. A slightly longer arctic warming period, almost as warm as the present, was observed from 1925 to 1945, but its geographical distribution appears to have been different from the recent warming since its extent was not global.” [my italics]

As I said, notwithstanding the last desparate clause, which I don’t even recognise as a scientific statement (in my opinion the 1925-1945 warming was every bit as global), it’s happened before.

I know that even the Technical Summary of AR4 is not something you actually read, but you might expect commentators like Joe Romm to have browsed the thing.  Failing that, you’d have thought they’d at least look at the IPCC’s pictures.  Here’s one I haven’t posted on here before – check out the top panel in particular:

I say it again: claiming short-term changes in Arctic sea-ice extent “prove” GW is exceptionally foolish.  There may be a cycle – on top of the GW trend – which has overshot, which could mean a decade or more of sceptics saying the ice-melt – and hence GW – has “reversed”.  Hysterical climate change popularisers such as Joe Romm are becoming less part of the solution than part of the problem  (which reminds me that maybe I should try to get hold of Mike Hulme’s book, which I gather makes a similar point).

It should be a priority to understand (or debunk) the AMO cycle.  Which makes my attempts to raise awareness on the other Realclimate post I mentioned at the outset all the more frustrating.

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Note: I originally started writing this post weeks ago – I just discovered it amongst my drafts.  It was at the exact point where I’ve written “see Note” that I was distracted by the question of where the precise dividing line lies between nationalism and racism, as illustrated by the case of Joe Romm.  Since then I’ve been much amused that the search parameters used to find my blog have included “Joseph Romm asshole”!  I feel myself under no pressure to pull my punches in the rest of this post.

July 5, 2010

Tantric Biofuel “Science”

Filed under: Biofuels, Complex decisions, Energy policy, Global warming, Reflections, Science — Tim Joslin @ 7:18 pm

The advocacy group, if it’s permissible to use the latest imported American argot to refer to a campaign against a policy programme, Food Not Fuel, have kindly emailed me a link to a Reuters Special Report, reporting that the EU may at last be having doubts about its biofuel policy.

The Special Report is so unnecessarily long-winded that it could in itself make a significant contribution to Europe meeting its renewable energy targets.  Here’s the main substantive point:

“The basic assumption with biofuels is that plants absorb as much carbon dioxide while growing as they release when burned in an engine. If you use them as a fuel, their net impact on the climate is close to zero, except for emissions from farming machinery and fertilizers. [Actually these can be very significant, but that’s not the main problem].

But this doesn’t take into account a relatively new concept that scientists drily call ‘indirect land use change’. Put simply, if you take a field planted with grain and switch that crop to something that can be used to make a biofuel, then somebody will go hungry unless the missing grain is grown elsewhere or farming yields are massively improved.

The rush to biofuels means the quantities of land needed are huge. Satisfying the EU’s demand alone will require an additional 4.5 million hectares of land by 2020, according to Reuters calculations based on an average of 15 of the studies for the Commission. That’s an area roughly equal to Denmark.

Burning forests to clear that land — which in theory could be found anywhere around the globe — would pump vast quantities of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere, enough to cancel out many of the theoretical benefits the biofuels are supposed to bring in the first place. EU sources say an upcoming report will point to a one-off release of around 200 million metric tons of carbon due to land-use change from biofuels, paid back slowly as the fuels do their job over the following centuries. That one-off release is roughly the annual fossil fuel emissions of Germany.”   [My emphasis].

Well, exactamundo.

This is rather as I pointed out as long ago as 2007 when I started calculating carbon emission payback periods for biofuels in my essay Biofuels Are Not the Answer.

Clearly the establishment is rather slow on the uptake.

But it’s not just that the study of this and other supposedly complex scientific questions is tantric.  There’s a more fundamental problem.

Maybe it’s all an elaborate job creation scheme, but it is simply not necessary to produce “116 studies, data files and emails, amounting to thousands of pages” (and that’s just the stuff we know about) and have “a charged [email] discussion between those in the frontline of biofuels research on whether indirect land use change was already taking place before 2007”, as Reuters reports.

Indirect land use change (ILUC), as it’s now being called, is not science in the sense that you can measure it in the complex real world.  I know this may be an alien concept to policy-makers, but ILUC is a logical argument.  If you devote significant amounts of land to the production of biofuels, something has to give.  Either there will be less land available for food production than would otherwise be the case, or we will encroach further on the world’s remaining natural ecosystems and forested land than would otherwise be the case.

Reuters note that:

“…agriculture officials, backed by colleagues in the energy unit, have painted the new science as unrefined. ‘Trying to establish the amount of indirect land use change caused by EU biofuels production is simply ridiculous,’ wrote one, whose name was blacked out in the released documents.”

Obviously the officials, who I assume are biofuel proponents, have a point.  But the science is unrefined, not because it’s primitive, as they perhaps imply, but because it is inappropriate to try to refine it.  ILUC is not something that can easily be measured or predicted.  There’s too much going on.  Land productivity varies with technological change and the vagaries of our increasingly unstable climate.  Many factors affect consumption of agricultural products. These uncertainties must be addressed by the disclaimer “all else remaining equal” – they will happen whether we devote land to biofuel production or not.

At some point we need to listen to the common-sense argument.  Reuters end by reporting that:

“…the likelihood of a policy shift in Brussels has grown. After 20 years in German politics, Guenther Oettinger [Europe’s new Energy Commissioner] is the kind of man who loathes controversy and policy dysfunction. Many of the architects of the biofuels policy were replaced in an overhaul in January.

‘We promote only sustainable biofuels and take the phenomenon of indirect land use very seriously,’ he said in a written response to Reuters. ‘This is why we have launched several studies on this. If it is confirmed that indeed that there is a serious problem related to indirect land use, we may adapt our legislation.’ “

Guenther, you can commission as many studies as you want, the scientists are not going to be able to give you a bottom-line number on this one.  Eventually you’re going to have to make the call.

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