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Climatism’s Mad, Mad World: A Review

By Thomas B. Fowler (articles - email) | Oct 08, 2012

[The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism, Steve Goreham, New Lenox Books, 2012, vii+301 pp, paperback and Kindle (see links following review)]

The theme of this book is the unsound science behind “global warming” and “climate change”, and the irrational behavior that it has spawned. The book is not a scientific treatise, but a more popular work, though one based on quantitative reasoning and scientific analysis. It discusses at some length the evidence against global warming, and describes the large-scale experiments done on renewable (“green”) energy production, and their generally lackluster results to date. It has numerous line-drawn cartoons ridiculing global warming, and sidebars with damaging quotations. The book is not a balanced, objective view of the global warming controversy, but an attempt to show that the global warming theory is at variance with the facts and hopeless as a blueprint for action. As the title suggests, the author believes that some type of collective insanity (or at least absurd groupthink) has overtaken the world of the intelligentsia and political leaders. Readers looking for a balanced treatment will have to find another book or else seek out the views of the global warming advocates in order to learn the other side of the debate.

To understand the issues, it is necessary to distinguish at least four major questions, the distinctions among which the author does not make as clear as might be desirable:

  1. Is global warming/climate change occurring at an “unnatural” rate due to human activity?
  2. Are current efforts designed to mitigate such change effective now, or can they be in the future?
  3. Are resources that should be conserved now being squandered?
  4. Can our current energy- and resource-intensive lifestyle be maintained, or maintained at a lower level of consumption?

Most of the book is devoted to discussion of the first issue. This is clearly the focus of most of today’s debate. Let us observe at the outset that “climate change” is something that has always happened; the question today is whether recent observed changes in climate—mainly increases in temperature—are due exclusively or in large measure to human activity, and thus subject to diminution or reversal. The scientific consensus, articulated principally by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is that the warming is unprecedented, and thus must be due to human activity, in particular increased CO2 emissions, since no other explanation presents itself (e.g., increased volcanic activity, change in solar radiation). The thesis that human activity is at the root of global warming and associated climate change is known as “anthropogenic global warming” (AGW), and nearly all evidence is interpreted so as to support it—something that has alarmed many scientists. The reader is no doubt aware that every extreme weather event—hurricanes, tornadoes, cold winters, warm winters, wet summers, drought, hot summers, and coral reefs dying off—are blamed by someone on “global warming”; and few are the skeptics who dare to question this explanation. There are indeed effects credibly ascribed to the warming, or at least impacted by it, including shrinking of the north polar icecap, rising sea levels, change in ocean acidity, coral reef degeneration, and some changes in flora and fauna.

Warming

In the author’s view, available evidence does not in fact support the notion that human activity is responsible for recent warming trends, and in particular, the idea that such activity could be capable of leading to the kind of environmental catastrophes often declaimed by climate change activists. The issue turns on temperature trend data and on assumptions about how the earth’s climate works. The main temperature trend is the 0.5° C rise in global temperatures from 1975 to 1998, though from the late 19th century to 2000 there was a net increase of about 1° C, including the 1975-1998 increase. Presumably this trend of warming will continue far forward into the future. That is what worries the climate change crowd. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is usually the presumed culprit and the focus of attention, even though it is not the principal greenhouse gas (water vapor is), because it is a product of fossil fuel combustion. And we can presumably do something about fossil fuel usage, even if we can’t do anything about water vapor. The author points out that CO2 makes up less than 1% of the earth’s atmosphere by weight, even less by number of molecules. It does, however, account for about 19% of the greenhouse effect (vs. about 75% for water vapor). The question is whether the man-made emission of CO2 is causing a significant and dangerous increase in the greenhouse effect. This emission has caused the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase by about 30% since 1960, and amounts to about 6 billion tons annually. There are about 750 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere; but the oceans and some flora and fauna are involved with the climate system, so the system as a whole has about 40,000 billion tons of CO2. The author concludes, on the basis of these numbers, that “human emissions are only a very small part of the carbon cycle, and the IPCC alarm is misplaced.” [p. 82].

This conclusion, of course, flies in the face of pronouncements by the (IPCC), and the stated position of major scientific organizations such as the American Physical Society (APS), the American Geological Society (AGS), and the American Meteorological Society (AMS), as well as political leaders around the world, educators, and many think tanks. These people are not fools; one should only contradict them with some trepidation; but they are not infallible. So the dilemma posed by global warming/climate change is straightforward: do we accept consensus science, or do we independently examine the evidence and draw our own conclusions, even if they turn out to be at variance with what seems to be the opinion of the majority of scientists? The issue is not just an academic debate: hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake, as well as the need to enforce unpopular actions, reduce living standards, use large amounts of land for alternative technologies, and infringe on individual freedoms, in order to achieve the goals of reduced carbon dioxide emission and lower global temperatures. Indeed, if we want to reduce total US CO2 emissions by 80% (often cited as a goal), we would have to go back to the per capita emission level of 1870, about 0.7 tons per person, which incidentally is that of Nigeria today. All of this, warming advocates claim, is needed to avoid the apocalyptic outcomes of global flooding, famine, species extinction, and general chaos on earth. On the other hand, if the global warming advocates are wrong, they will be condemning millions around the world unnecessarily to lives of poverty and deprivation, as well as wasting huge amounts of money and natural resources that could be deployed more beneficially.

In fact the matter is a bit more complicated than the arithmetic that Mr. Goreham presents. The numbers that he cites for CO2 levels and the amount of CO2 increase in the past 50 years or so are correct. They are data from well-established measurements, and are not in dispute. There is also no question that an increase in CO2 will cause some increase in global temperature. But the position of global warming advocates is that the effects of changes in CO2 levels are amplified by the climate system, thus making their effect much greater than the raw numbers would suggest (positive feedback). So a small increase in CO2, they believe, could yield a 1 or 2 percent increase in global heating, enough to trigger the nightmare scenarios often touted. Those who doubt the warming hypothesis argue that the climate will behave in such a way as to counteract the CO2 warming (negative feedback). It is difficult to determine how climate feedback operates from looking at the data, at least in the short term. But there is no doubt about the longer term predictions: significant and fairly steady warming in the one case, and no or only moderate warming in the other. Which of these two is correct is not a matter for debate, as if it were a political question. It is a scientific question, and one which must be addressed using the established methods of science. Typically global warming advocates push climate models, which are extremely complicated computer programs, known as “General Circulation Models” (GCMs), which they believe are the scientific way of investigating the matter. These models invariably assume amplification of the effect of CO2. And clearly, models can be useful, especially when the system is too large or changes too slowly for laboratory experiments. But modeling is always subject to some problems that are endemic to it, namely that the modeler can put into the assumptions or the dynamics of the model the conclusion that he would like to see, such as the amplification of CO2 effects (and the effects of other greenhouse gases such as methane). And with extremely complicated models, such as the GCMs, getting the dynamics right is very difficult. This issue—whether and to what degree the earth’s climate amplifies or diminishes the effects of increased CO2—is ultimately the central question in the climate debate, on which the whole matter of global warming turns. So clearly the predictions of the models, as well as the pronouncements of climate alarmists, need to be checked against real data.

Here, it seems, there are some problems:

  1. Predictions of steadily increasing global temperature have not been borne out—temperatures have remained fairly steady since about 2000. This is contrary to the pundits as well as to the models. The graph on p. 67 is particularly telling, as it shows the steady increase in CO2 since the late 1950s, but the weak correlation with global temperatures; a positive correlation existed only over the period 1980-2000.
  2. The models predict a “hot spot” in the troposphere over the equator, which has never occurred.
  3. The models also predict faster warming at the poles than elsewhere, but in fact Arctic temperatures are not rising faster, and Antarctic temperatures are not rising at all (decreasing over most of Antarctica, rising slightly on the Antarctic peninsula).

These three problems are not yet definitive evidence against the models, but as the years go by and their predictions are not borne out, the models’ credibility steadily falls.

There are some other serious problems with arguments for global warming.

  1. Defective if not fraudulent work was done purporting to show that the earth’s temperature over the past 1000 year was fairly steady until the 20th century, when a sharp increase occurred. The famous graph, known as the “hockey stick”, was devised by climatologist Michael Mann and some of his colleagues. The paper that they wrote was clearly not subjected to rigorous testing and review before publication, and was later shown to be based on defective data analysis methodology. In fact, detective work by two Canadian scientists showed that “random data could be fed into Mann’s algorithm and a hockey stick-shaped curve would always be produced.” [p. 66]—a clear and utter failure of the peer review process. The ostensible purpose of the paper was to show that there was no worldwide Medieval Warm Period, despite the fact that it is well attested in historical documents as well as in published studies of areas around the world. This was (and is) needed by global warming advocates because it is hard to make the case for immediate and drastic action if the world were warmer in the past when human activity was far more modest, and CO2 production much lower.
  2. The “climategate” emails showed that there is considerable bias in climate work, with concerted efforts to thwart the publication of papers that disagree with the prevailing opinion, and suppress inconvenient facts.
  3. The IPCC has knowingly included false statements in its reports with the goal, in the words of lead author Dr. Murari Lal, of putting political pressure on world leaders: “We thought that if we can highlight it [the claim that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035], it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”
  4. The author believes that the “consensus” often claimed is not as unanimous as advocates of global warming would have us believe (true), and that some sort of hysteria has overtaken purveyors of the notion of global warming (not so clear).

It is, however, undoubtedly true that in this case, as in some others, science has become politicized, and AGW has become a religion. It is easy to tell when this occurs: even scientists begin to say that the “facts are irrelevant”. “The data don’t matter…we’re not basing our recommendations upon the data; we’re basing them upon the climate models.” [p.111] This is very dangerous, because scientists are supposed to give objective advice to policy makers, whose job it is to act on correct information. When biased or incorrect information is put forth as objective science, the whole democratic decision process breaks down. But that does not seem to concern many, such as Stephen Schneider, one of the IPCC lead authors: “…we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.” [p. 154].

Alternative Energy

The author also discusses problems with today’s green energy replacements for fossil-fuel based power plants. This part of the book is less successful because it is somewhat misleading. It is true that with current technology and deployment the power that alternative energy systems generate (mainly solar and wind) depends on conditions often unrelated to the demand for power. Obviously solar systems only work during the day, and wind turbines only provide power when the wind blows. At the present time, we do not have any reliable means to store large amounts of energy. Right now nuclear power is the only real large-scale alternative to fossil-fuel based plants, and with a few exceptions (e.g., France), it is being phased out. But the author also claims that alternative technologies do not generate enough power to displace fossil-fueled plants, with the implication that they will never be able to do so. While no fossil fuel plants have closed, the fact of the matter is that renewables now supply something on the order of 1-3% of world energy, and over the 20 or so years that these installations have come on line, world energy demand has increased by 30-40%, so no doubt some conventional plants that would otherwise have been built were not. Ramping up new technologies always takes time; significant displacement of fossil fuel by renewables could not realistically occur in less than 50 years, probably more like a century.

Moreover the author seems to assume that fossil-based fuels will always be available, and that we will always be able to discover more in the nick of time. In fact the quantities of these fuels are limited, and unless we discover some way to induce algae or some other biological organism to produce them (or something like them), we will at some point exhaust the supply. So the search for alternatives is an important one. Most solar cells today have efficiencies on the order of 10-15%. This is low and contributes to the impracticality of large-scale solar deployments, which the author discusses. But solar energy is direct energy conversion, so efficiencies close to 100% are theoretically possible. The average insolation (solar energy) in the US is about 1000 W/m2. At 90% efficiency, were that obtainable, a 1 square meter panel could produce about 1600 kW-hours of electricity per year. The total US energy consumption is about 29,000 TW-hours. This means that all the energy consumed in the US could, in theory, be provided by about 18 billion such panels. This is about 7,000 square miles, a bit larger than the area of Connecticut. If each state built such a power plant, it would require a square area about 12 miles on a side. This is not so daunting. (For reference, we have paved about 61,000 square miles for roads and parking lots). Unfortunately we are nowhere near that solar cell efficiency, and the aforementioned problem of energy storage is nowhere close to being solved. But we still have to look ahead. This suggests that a considerable research and development should be undertaken, instead of large-scale deployment of low-performance systems in a desperate effort to slow something that we aren’t sure is really happening. Festina lente, Augustus said (“Make haste slowly”).

A more in-depth look at all energy generation technologies is also needed, especially with respect to what is known as “energy return on energy invested” (EROI). How much net energy is produced by a product over its lifetime when the energy to make it is taken into account? Wind turbines, for example, take huge investments in materials, requiring several hundred kilograms of rare earths per megawatt. (Most rare earths, such as neodymium, are not only rare, but come from China). The American Wind Energy Association claims that the US now has 50GW of installed wind generation capacity, enough to power 13 million homes, and eliminate 44 coal-fired power plants or 11 nuclear power plants. However, there is considerable doubt about the actual delivered power from wind farms; it appears to be closer to 20%-30% of capacity, which would reduce the 50GW to 10 or 15GW. At present there are about 160,000 wind turbines in operation around the world. Each costs about $2 million, requires about 5,000 m2 of land, and has an average capacity of 1-2 MW. Total installed world capacity is around 238 GW. Estimates of the percent of world energy from wind turbines varies considerably, but it is on the order of 1-3%. Scaling this up to 10-20% will be expensive (~$3.2 trillion), and consume 8,000 square kilometers—doable in theory but finding enough places with fairly steady wind will be difficult. (In fairness, the land around a wind turbine can be used for farming or even solar panels, if the location is suitable.) Nonetheless the EROI for wind is estimated between 15 and 20, higher than for any other type of power generation except for hydro (6 for nuclear, 8 for coal, and about 8 for solar cells, though these estimates vary widely); but the problem of energy storage is just as acute for wind power as for solar, since the wind doesn’t necessarily blow when power is most needed. So while renewable energy installations take more acreage than conventional or nuclear plants, if the choice is no energy or renewable energy, it is a no-brainer. Long term they will be the only choice unless a way to synthesize petroleum-like substances is found, but “long term” may be long indeed—a century or more. For reference, world energy consumption is about 132,000 TW, at present mostly supplied by fossil-fuel based plants. The potential for solar power generation is estimated to be on the order of 450,000 TW, for wind power 167,000 TW, and geothermal 139,000 TW. Whether these estimated power levels can be attained, and how long it will take to do so, is difficult to gauge. It will not be in the short term, however. So in the meantime we have to figure out what to do about fossil fuel usage.

Sustainability is also important for alternative energy technologies. For example, biofuels, such as ethanol, appear to be a terminally dumb idea, not only because they divert foodstuffs at a time when hunger is a problem around the world, but because they are impractical as well. Even the UN estimates that the EU, for example, would need to convert 70% of its agricultural land to produce just 10% of its energy needs [p. 206]. And the EROI for biofuels like ethanol is around 1.3—that is, only slightly more than break-even. There are also the ongoing problems of pollution from fertilizer runoff, topsoil erosion, and water usage. Sustainability for wind, solar, and geothermal power is less of an issue, though solar plants do consume large amounts of land even under optimistic assumptions, and wind turbines as discussed above do require considerable natural resources (which, however, could be recycled when the turbine is decommissioned).

Final Questions

This brings us to the last two questions: should we just blow the whole thing off and keep doing what we’re doing now, oblivious to future generations with respect to consumption of limited resources? And do we need to use as much energy as we currently consume to maintain our lifestyle? Should that lifestyle be maintained? The author’s position seems to be in the affirmative. This is much more problematic, and more closely related to moral and ethical issues, than the question of global warming, at least at present. In fact, coupling the issue of global warming to that of fossil fuel usage is a grave mistake, because there are many reasons for us to reduce use of fossil fuels that are independent of global warming. For example, we need to reduce our dependence on resources from politically unstable parts of the world; we should husband limited resources for future generations; and we should reduce our use of fuels and other products that create significant pollution of the atmosphere, land, and waterways.

As for lifestyle and standard of living, it is true, as the author points out [p. 184], that there is a correlation between energy use and standard of living, as measured by per capita gross domestic product (GDP). But it has also been known for many decades that the entire world, or a significant portion of it, cannot reach US living standards if it means per capita energy consumption at our level. Furthermore most European countries and Japan have per capita GDP close to ours, with significantly lower energy usage. But voluntary reductions in living standard are extremely difficult, and forced reductions are not pleasant either. Resolution of these questions of long-term energy consumption patterns, resource depletion, and lifestyle is quite beyond the scope of this review, of course; but hopefully the reader will recognize that they are important, and ultimately must be addressed, even if global warming is not a significant problem.

Overall this book is useful and entertaining, and I recommend it. But should be balanced with other books or material, so that the reader understands well the reasons why so many are convinced that global warming/climate change is for real, as well as the issues and trade-offs presented by alternative energy sources. The reviewer’s position is that it will be a few more years before we can really judge the temperature trend and the validity of the climate models, and thus the real danger—if any—ahead. If the evidence mounts that global warming is not occurring, we shall see whether the current global warming advocates admit their mistake. Since this would be (or should be) a career-wrecking move, it would require more honesty and integrity than we have seen so far. In the case of large organizations such as the IPCC or AMS, their credibility will be badly damaged; a mea culpa from them is unlikely, however. Probably they will all try to bury the matter and hope no one makes too much noise about it, just as they have deleted failed predictions from their web sites, and quietly dropped fiascos like the hockey stick from their reports. In the meantime, while we await that theatre, development and testing of alternative technologies for power generation should continue, together with examination of questions of lifestyle and living standard.

[Dr. Thomas B. Fowler is an adjunct professor of engineering at George Mason University, and an independent engineering consultant.]

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 09, 2012 8:35 AM ET USA

    Yesterday when I was teaching about the causes of the Quaternary ice ages a student raised her hand to tell me that she was scared to death about global warming. She wanted to know the relationship between it and the Pleistocene Ice Age. I explained to her that in the 1960s the "experts" told us to prepare for a new ice age because temperatures had been falling for 25 years. I then showed her IPCC data in the textbook. Global temperatures reached a peak in 1998 and have fallen ever since.

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