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Climate Change: Non-Science or Texas Black Swan?

 


The drama continues, but the recent filing by the Texas Attorney General to challenge the IPCC findings on Climate Change is no big surprise.

 

Particularly since George Bush’s home state relies a lot on oil and beef ; although, given the past record of the Bush dynasty et al, one can’t help wondering how much of the costs of the action will be paid by the good citizens of Texas, and how much will be paid by the Saudi’s? But then that’s just one more conspiracy theory in a long line.

 

http://blogs.chron.com/sciguy/archives/2010/02/texas_declares_war_on_the_ipcc_british_climate_uni.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+houstonchronicle%2Fsciguy+%28SciGuy%29

 

In a presentation just a few weeks after the disaster in Copenhagen at the World Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi, Rajendra Pachauri remarked that one thousand two hundred scientists had contributed to the 2007 report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (NASDAQ:IPCC).

 

Those were the days, 2007 was a time of roses and light for the “Movement”. The icing on the cake was the day Dr. Pachauri proudly accepted the Noble Peace Prize on behalf of IPCC, along with Al Gore.

 

Once-upon-a-time when a room-full of scientists reached a consensus on something, there would have been nothing more to talk about; so logically it ought to follow that if 1,200 of them had all reached a unanimous consensus; it should have been a slam-dunk in Copenhagen.

 

It wasn’t. There remains a high level of scepticism that if anything has grown exponentially since a 2006 study by Pew Global, an environmental NGO, found that 47% of Americans and 37% of Chinese expressed little or no concern about the problem. The increasingly acrimonious exchanges on the Internet demonstrate that opinions have hardened; so has the language.

 

The non-believers now accuse the “tree-huggers” of scientific fraud. Those barbs are met with words like “Russian Roulette with the Planet”; two days before Copenhagen Gordon Brown lambasted “behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earth climate sceptics.”

 

Flowery language apart, up to that point, the audience was small and specialized. But then “Climate-gate” galvanized interest in one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns, ever. Ranked by the ratio of Google hits to news articles, the scandal generated twenty times more interest than the Tiger Woods story, but sadly it was not the sort of interest that the tree-huggers were looking for.

 

Now there are even conspiracy theories within conspiracy theories including a scoop by the Mail on Sunday about how the KGB were (possibly) implicated in the leaking of those extraordinarily “inconvenient” e-mails originating from the University of East Anglia, just days before the Summit. 

 

At the end of the Abu Dhabi conference Tony Blair pronounced that “the scientific consensus on Climate Change is reasonably clear except for the wilfully blind”. One wag at the back quipped, “Sure, that’s what he said about the weapons of mass destruction”.

 

Regardless of whose fault it was, the Copenhagen Summit was an unmitigated disaster for the promoters of “action”. The idea was that 35,000 delegates from all over the world would get together and map out a way forwards from the Kyoto Protocol. If climate change is really all that it’s cracked up to be, there was not a moment to lose.

 

Kyoto was signed in 1997 and it came into effect in 2005 with the aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the signatories by 5.2% off the 1990 levels.

 

 Since then the worldwide rate of emission went up 40% above 1990 levels and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (one of the main culprits, but not the only one), went up from 360 parts per million in 1997 to 388 in early 2010. Some scientists say that is getting dangerously near to a “tipping point”.

 

Yet the outcome of Copenhagen was a face-saving compromise that had no teeth, USA signed up to a non-binding commitment to a 17% reduction of emissions below the 2005 levels, which President Obama remarked was “better than doing nothing”.

 

The fallout was not helped by a slew of other revelations, for example that the “science” behind a claim made in the IPCC report that glaciers in the Himalayas were melting, was based on little more than the speculation of a journalist. And that in turn was not helped by the news that a $500,000 study commissioned by one agency of the British Government, that had concluded that notion was nonsense, was set aside in favour of another $2,000,000 study commissioned by another agency that supported the idea of climate change in our time.

 

In a Press conference in Abu Dhabi, Rajendra Pachauri, who by that time was being accused of conflicts of interest particularly in relation to a huge solar project in his native India, declared, “Regardless, the science in the IPCC report; is sound”.

 

No one believed him.

 

There was a time when “science” was a refuge for Gentlemen who had impeccable manners and called each other by their surnames. The silence after Copenhagen is as loud as the silence after a Victorian soiree that degenerated into a drunken brawl.

 

Part of the problem is that many of the predictions are based on mathematical models done on computers. In the old-days scientists would toil away in dusty laboratories full of exotic smells mixing potions, and every now and then burst forth and run down the street stark naked, crying Eureka!

 

Those days are over, swept aside by the energy of new data-processing technology, but nowadays the world is more than a little disillusioned by what Warren Buffet called “geeks bearing models”. There are many who would happily never again hear the word “algorithm” spoken again, regardless of whether it came from a “proper scientist” or an economist with “physics envy”.

 

What has emerged is an uncertainty about what science actually is; there is a perception that the good-name of “science” has been hijacked by a combination of commercial considerations, economists, politicians and spin doctors on one side, and by armchair scientists and special interest groups on the other side; both energetically conducting a web-based guerrilla war that has degenerated into a virtual cyber-slanging match.

 

 

The way that the IPCC report was presented, illustrates another problem. The conclusion was that there is a 95% probability that unless something is done, the sea level will rise as much as 59cm by 2100 and that there will be an economic cost of 0.12% of GDP a year.

 

Translating that into English what that means is there is an asteroid approaching Planet Earth at great speed, but it’s going to miss. But since the shock-waves of its passage might break some tiles and cause emotional distress to polar bears, “something ought to be done”.

 

A catch-all “95% probability that we might be right”, might be good enough for an economist or a spin doctor, but it is not science, that’s the sort of thing that economists say, which is perhaps not surprising since Rajendra Pachauri is a mechanical engineer (not a scientist) with a PhD in economics, and David Stern the author of the British “Stern report” is also an economist.

 

The physicist Earnest Rutherford once said “if you need statistics to prove a piece of science, you should have done a better experiment”, the point in this case is that so far no one has proved to the satisfaction of every independently minded scientist that either (a) the world really is heating up, or (b) that greenhouse gases are the agents that are responsible for that, if it is happening.

 

That is a fact, and regardless of what the “tree-huggers” and the politicians who are scoring points from the debate would like, that fact is indisputable, with a probability of 100%.

 

The words “95% probability of being right” say nothing to a scientists, particularly those who spend their lives looking for the highly improbable; for example what happens when two previously un-imagined sub-atomic particles, collide.

 

Now it looks increasingly like those words are saying nothing to “Average Joe” either, regardless of whether the promoters of “action” can enlist the services of one thousand two hundred scientists, paid for mainly by the public purse, to say the contrary.

 

The “call for action”, was not helped either by the justification of the 0.12% of GDP that inaction would cost, particularly since the burden to prove that fell on the economists, who have been criticized for piling  one layer of non-science on another. For example, the estimates of “storm damage” resulting from climate change prepared by the economist David Stern in the “Stern Report”, which was commissioned by the British government and released prior to the IPCC report, have been exposed as un-scientific. That has caused a barrage of scepticism to be thrown at the conclusion which was that climate change might cause damage valued in today’s money equal to 1% to 2% of GDP ($6 trillion to $12 trillion per year).

 

More to the point, the first question that any real scientist would have asked when presented with the words “95% probability”, would be, “so what happens if it turns out to be the residual 5%”?

 

Any sixth-form science student knows that if the distribution of probability was “normal” (and there is no evidence that it is), then there is a 2.5% probability that what will happen will be a whole lot worse than the relatively benign 59cm rise in sea levels and 0.12% hit to world GDP predicted as the worst-case by IPCC.

 

As a point of reference, the probability of default of a sub-prime AAA rated residential mortgaged backed security was estimated by “the geeks bearing models” to be 0.26%.

 

By that benchmark the probability that Climate Change will be much worse that the worst-case predicted by the IPCC report, is ten times more than what the probability of a near-collapse of the world financial system was estimated at, before it collapsed.

 

That is of course if the rest of the IPCC report is to be believed, as “sound science”.

 

But what the “real” scientists are worried about at the moment is that if the world is heating up in such a way that the ice in the Northern and Southern poles starts to melt; regardless of whether this was due to mankind or not, then this could create a “feedback”, since dark water absorbs more heat than ice. But of more concern, methane which is a much more active greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and which was previously locked into the frozen ice, particularly in the areas of permafrost in Siberia, would start to be released.

 

If that starts to happen it is conceivable that the newly released methane would cause the world to heat up more, so more ice would melt, so more methane would be released, until perhaps one point when crystalline methane hydrates currently frozen in the depth of deep oceans would break down. If that happened all of the ice on both of the poles would melt, with 100% probability.

 

The result would not be a 59 cm rise in sea levels, if the East Antarctica glacier melts along with the land-ice on Greenland that will result in a nine meter rise in sea levels, if the West Antarctica glacier melts that will result in a 60 meter rise in sea levels. That’s not a “95% probability”, that is something that any competent scientist can predict with a 100% confidence.

 

A nine-meter rise would flood a good part of the commercial and manufacturing capability of the world, much of which is located close to the sea for convenient shipping; and also, all of the ports that feed world trade would be flooded too.

 

That would mean a large proportion of China’s export manufacturing capability which is located close to the sea, for example in and around Shanghai and Guangdong under-water, so would most of the Netherlands, and a good part of London; and on top of loss of output, and trade, the damage to real estate worldwide would be in the easily $100 trillion mark-to-market at today’s valuations.

 

A sixty-meter rise would flood 75% of the places on the planet where economic activity is conducted, rough numbers that would knock $45 trillion a year off GDP with a net present value of that loss discounting at 5% until the problem was “fixed” of easily $500 trillion. And that’s not counting the polar bears, however sweet and cuddly they may appear to be; that’s of course when they are not actually contemplating you as a possible option for lunch.

 

That of course is all “highly improbable”.

 

The main problem at the moment, and the sticking point, is that the politicians, the economists, and the polar bear fanciers, have tried to ramrod the science into places science should not go, and should never have been in the first place.

 

The science is not sufficiently advanced to be able to explain with any degree of accuracy what is the cause and effect of man’s impact on climate; and it most certainly is not advanced enough to be able to form a basis for a linear cost/benefit analysis. The mistake of IPCC and the Stern report was to attempt to do that.

 

The variables for climate change are much more complex than for example the variables of the effect of man-made organohalogen compounds on ozone. In that case the mechanism by which ozone was destroyed was demonstrated in a laboratory and a scientific explanation for how that happened was proposed, peer reviewed, and accepted by the scientific establishment.

 

From Wikipedia:

 

After negotiation of an international treaty (the Montreal Protocol), CFC production was sharply limited beginning in 1987 and phased out completely by 1996. On August 2, 2003, scientists announced that the depletion of the ozone layer may be slowing down due to the international ban on CFCs. Three satellites and three ground stations confirmed that the upper atmosphere ozone depletion rate has slowed down significantly during the past decade. Some breakdown can be expected to continue due to CFCs used by nations which have not banned them, and due to gases which are already in the stratosphere. CFCs have very long atmospheric lifetimes, ranging from 50 to over 100 years, so the final recovery of the ozone layer is expected to require several lifetimes.

 

That episode was a good example of how the problem was identified, the cause was understood, international co-operation was achieved, and a solution was found, notwithstanding that it is expected to take “several lifetimes” to repair the damage.

 

Climate change is much more complicated. All that can be said with any level of scientific certainty is (a) there probably is a problem (b) it is likely that man has contributed to the problem and (c) there is a remote chance that the problem, unless mitigated against, may result in a catastrophic rise in sea levels (in addition to other less catastrophic events) (d) it’s impossible right now to know what the probability of that happening, is.

 

But real kicker is that unlike the CFC story, the costs of mitigation are much more. It is likely that if there is indeed a “problem” then what will need to happen over the next twenty years is:

 

1: The 7,000 GW of fossil fuel power plants in the world will need to be replaced by a non-carbon source; and all new plants will need to be non-carbon.

 

2: The production of ruminants for meat (mainly cattle), which contributes 8% to 10% of greenhouse gases, will need to stop.

 

3: The destruction of rain-forests which act as a carbon sink, mopping up the extra CO2 will need to stop.

 

4: Halving of the rate of consumption of fossil fuels for transportation.

 

Items (2) and (3) could probably be achieved at minimal cost, and certainly the loss of the beef industry would triple the potential for food production in the world, item (4) is within sight although there would be a significant cost.  But item (1) would involve a major cost which it is quite possible the world cannot afford.

 

As a benchmark, the capital cost to build 7,000 GW of nuclear powered plants, using the most efficient technology there is the world right, and assuming that all of the “green” restrictions that make a US plant in USA cost two to three times what a Korean plant in Korea costs, the bill for that would be in the order of $15 trillion, assuming economies of scale, and after allowing for payment of compensation to owners of mothballed carbon-burning plants.

 

On top of that new plants would need to be “non-carbon” which would add an incremental capital cost of about $50 billion a year at current trend-line rates of growth of demand.

 

It might be cheaper to achieve this with wind-power for perhaps 10% to 20% of that load, using existing technology; although solar panels are currently miles away from that level of “grid parity”.  Regardless, the benchmark as of today; must be nuclear, because that is a proven and highly reliable technology, and if the “risks” of nuclear are considered too great, then if there is a decision to purchase “insurance”, “someone” is going to need to pay the costs of mitigating those risks.

 

Looking at it that way, it is logical that the people who should pay, are the countries that stand to suffer most from that highly unlikely event, of which China, Japan, the European Union, USA, UAE, and Saudi Arabia are the main ones (in that order), the question is are they prepared to find between them $1 trillion a year in today’s money, for twenty years, to take out insurance?

 

That may sound like a lot, although if you compare that with the cost of having a good war these days, it’s almost a pittance.

 

There again, a good nuclear war would throw up enough dust in the air to “solve” the problem for generations at a fraction of that cost (to the winner); and that would have the additional advantage of reducing demand for coal-burning energy; perhaps that’s an option that should be considered?

 

 

 


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