Obama’s New Coal Regulations

I’ve been holding off commenting on the new coal regulations announced by the EPA this past Monday. The reason is because the regulation has nothing to do with the reality of global warming. The science remains the same with, or without the proposed regulations.

However, I also like to discuss actions we can take to address the problems we are facing and the emission of greenhouse gases is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed. So, the question is, does the new proposed regulations address the problem? I have been reviewing what is being said and, to no surprise, both sides of the argument are making extreme predictions, neither of which seems to be holding up to the light of day.

First, I really see no evidence this will make a significant change in our greenhouse emissions. Headlines are saying it will reduce our emissions by 30%, but that isn’t true. What it will do is cut emissions from new construction power plants by 30% compared to the 2005 levels. Power plants have already reduced emissions by about 13% compared to 2005 levels, so we are talking about an additional 17% reduction. These regulations apply only to new power plants and not to any existing power plants or other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as cars. In the total picture, that comes out to about a 6% cut. And, that is over a 15-year period. Notice that the 17% reduction occurred without any new EPA regulations. They occurred because of market forces, so it is reasonable to assume that further reductions would occur without these new regulations.

Also, it isn’t even necessary to actually make the cuts. States can make their own plans and combine the power plants with something else. So, if some industry is making reductions anyway it is possible to combine them with the power plants and the power plants can then go their merry way. To make it even worse, states are allowed to join together in one big plan. So, the reduction could be taking place in one state and the coal-fired plant could be in another.

Based on that, I have to say this is getting a lot more attention than it deserves.

But, what about the draconian predictions of the groups opposed to the proposed regulations?

Again, I just don’t see it. They are saying this will make electricity more expensive and cause a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The US Chamber of Commerce is predicting a loss of 224,000 jobs PER YEAR for the next 15 years. That comes out to 3,360,000 total jobs and that number is just not credible on the surface. I would want to see some serious estimates before I accept a figure like that.

Why am I so critical of that estimate? Simple. The demand for electricity is sky-rocketing in this country. If we are not building coal-fired plants, we will build something else. The electrical utilities will find a way to supply the electricity demanded because that is what they are in business to do. Supplying electricity means profit. They are not going to sit back and allow potential profits to go away without doing something about it.

And, as it turns out, we are developing better ways to generate electricity than burning coal. Natural gas is not great, but it is much better than coal and we have a very serious boom in natural gas production going on in this country. We have the ability to replace all of the coal-fired plants with natural gas alone.

But, that isn’t all. It now turns out that photo cells are becoming competitive with other forms of power production. A report by Barclays investment bank shows that photocells are already cost-competitive in Hawaii, and will be competitive in California by 2017 and New York and Arizona by 2018. By 2024, they say photocells will be cheaper than grid power in all but a handful of states.

Specifically, the report is looking at the issue of cells and storage on private homes – people going off the grid. But, if photocells are becoming that competitive, how long will it be before the utilities realize they can make efficient, competitive power plants using photocells?

In other words, we will be making electricity and I don’t see the cost sky rocketing. As for the jobs, there will likely be some job displacement, but losses will probably be minor if in fact, we don’t see an increase in jobs due to new technologies. Coal miners might see their jobs suffer, but I’m betting it won’t be as much as is claimed. Coal is something of a miracle power source, other than the fact that it is a terrible polluter. You just dig it out of the ground and use it. You don’t have to process it and it even comes in an easy to transport form. If we are not burning coal here in this country, there are world markets where it will still be cost effective to ship our coal. China alone is planning on opening a new power plant every week between now and 2050.

So, the way I view the regulation is that its pretty close to being much ado about nothing. The cost to the economy is not going to be anything like the dire forecasts being made. At the same time, the benefits to the environment are not going to be anything like the optimistic forecasts being made.

However, we must do something about the emissions. If this will help, then we should do it. And, it gives us the moral high ground to put pressure on other countries to take action on their emissions.

But, there is one dark side to this that needs to be addressed. As much as I, as a scientist, want to see politics stay out of a scientific issue, we all know that is not realistic. Politics is the driving force behind much of the debate. I really don’t believe the Republicans would deny global warming evidence so strongly if it was being proposed by a Republican. And, what Obama has done with his actions is to stir the pot and alienate Republicans even more. By his failure as President to work with the representatives of the People, including members of his own party, he is making future progress even harder to attain. By acting as an Imperial President, Obama is making it increasingly difficult to convince skeptics that this is a problem that needs to be addressed now.

In summary, I think the regulation is good one, even though it is over-hyped. But, I denounce the way it is being done.

Arctic Sea Ice and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation

The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) is a naturally occurring 60-90 year cycle in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. This cycle consists of alternating cold and warm periods and has an influence on the climate in the region. A recent paper by Martin W. Miles, et al, examines the history of ice extent in the area and compares it to the AMO record. What they found is that ice extent in the region fluctuates in response to the changes in the AMO, resulting in periods of greater and lesser ice extent. They suggest that some of the unprecedented loss of sea ice in the recent decades can be tied to a warm cycle in the AMO.

I have no problem with this. I would expect there to be just such a naturally occurring cycle. But, I do not find this to be enough to explain what we have been witnessing, and the authors emphasize that this in only a part of the puzzle and there are other factors, including warming from manmade emissions, that are contributing to the ice loss.

Take a look at the ice anomaly for September 2012:

And the ice extent for the same month:

The Barents Sea is the area on the right, between Norway and the polar sea ice. With the North  Pole marked in both images, it is the area at about the 4-5 o’clock position. Comparing the two figures, we can see this region has experienced a great deal of sea ice since 1980. Can the AMO explain all of this loss? I would be not, but let’s say that it is still under study.

But, what about the rest of the Arctic Ocean? There is significant loss all around the North Pole and this cannot be explained by the AMO. So, before we get all excited that maybe the loss of the Arctic sea ice is just a naturally occurring event, we can already see that it may be contributing to the recent loss, but it cannot explain for all of it. After all, we never saw the level get this low in previous warm cycles. And, the current loss began during a cool cycle. Clearly, there is more to the ice loss than the AMO.

Fox News Bias Bash Bias Bash

NBC News did a special report Sunday, ‘Ann Curry Reports: Our Year of Extremes – Did Climate Change Just Hit Home?

Fox News has hated any kind of reporting supporting climate change. This well done piece by NBC News (not usually one of my favorite news sources) apparently made Fox News go into some kind of fit because they did a ‘Bias Bash’ piece with Cal Thomas that is simply laughable.

Right off the bat, Mr. Thomas begins by calling climate change a ‘cult’. Immediately, we can see that Mr. Thomas and Fox News are not interested in having any kind of ‘debate’ that climate change skeptics keep saying they want.

The next point is to quote Dr. Leslie Woodcock, a professor emeritus at the University of Manchester. He is a physicist in the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science. Really? If I wanted to make a refute climate change I would have found me a climatologist. What was that you said? You can’t find one the says climate change isn’t real? Maybe that is because its real. At least, Dr. Woodcock is a real scientist.

Dr. Woodcock’s objection to global warming is that ‘Water is a much more powerful greenhouse gas and there is 20 times more of it in our atmosphere’. This is a really perfect example of how the climate change deniers use false arguments and half truths to deceive people. What he says is true, but incomplete. Obviously, what he is trying to say is that climate change is invalid because water vapor is the cause of global warming, not CO2. And, there is the lie.

Yes, water vapor is a better greenhouse gas than CO2. But, that isn’t the cause of the warming, its a result. What happens is that the CO2 causes the temperature to rise. The amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is directly connected to the temperature, so as the temperature increases the amount of water vapor also increases. Water vapor then causes the temperature to go up even more.So, yes, water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas, but the reason water vapor is increasing is because CO2 is causing the temperature to increase in the first place. Without something to cause the temperature to rise in the first place, the amount of water vapor would not increase.

Next, Mr. Thomas brings out the case of Dr. Richard Tol. Dr. Tol is a professor of economics and an expert on climate change. He was a member of the IPCC and gained fame when he refused to sign the IPCC report, claiming it was alarmist. He claims he has since been subject to a smear campaign from a certain individual as a result of his actions. Mr. Thomas cites this as evidence that climate change science is a ‘cult.’

If, in fact, Dr. Tol is being subjected to a smear campaign as a result of his stand on the IPCC report I agree that it is an unethical, and possibly illegal, action. But, I don’t have all the facts and I am not willing to claim his allegations are true. I certainly hope not.

But, that does not mean anything regarding the validity of climate change science. In fact, Dr. Tol himself stands by the science. He has stated that he considers the science sound, he just disagrees with the resulting scenario painted out in the IPCC report. That fact that one person involved with the report disagrees with the results predicted in the IPCC report does not, in any way, invalidate the science of climate change. But, it makes a good headline for the deniers. And, of course, Mr. Thomas reports this as if every person supporting climate change science is involved in some grand conspiracy to persecute Dr. Tol. That is an obvious false statement. Yet another one on the part of Cal Thomas.

Then, Mr. Thomas goes into ‘big government,’ something most of us don’t care for. His implication is that the only reason we have climate change science supporting the notion of global warming is because ‘big government’ wants to control more of our lives. So, by denying climate change you are a hero in the fight against ‘big government.’ This entire position of Mr. Thomas is simply silly. Climate change science is multi-national and is supported by every scientific agency of any size throughout the world. If ‘big government’ had that kind of reach it wouldn’t need to fake climate change science, it could just go out and do what it wanted to do.

Then, Mr. Thomas pulls out the tried, and proven false, claim that there hasn’t been any ‘real’ warming in more than a dozen years. Again, this is a totally false claim the deniers like to pull out. Let’s look at the facts. First, nine of the ten warmest years ever recorded have occurred since the year 2000, including the hottest three years on record. But, more importantly, the deniers such as Cal Thomas take the air temperature and claim it represents global warming. The word ‘global’ in global warming means the entire planet. Ocean temperatures have been going up dramatically over the last 50 years and this fact is typically ignored by people such as Mr. Thomas. It would not fit their program if they included it. It also wouldn’t fit their program to mention it takes about 4 times as much heat to warm a given mass of water as it takes to warm the same mass of air. When you include rising ocean temperatures, it is very clear that global warming has been continuing at an alarming rate.

Mr. Thomas’ next claim is that Newsweek ran an article in the 1970s that ‘proved’ global cooling was coming. This is a true, but misleading statement. It is true that Newsweek ran a cover story in 1975 that global cooling was on the way. But, it is a false statement that this was the consensus claim among climate scientists. What the news media decides to run is out of the hands of scientists. And, the fact that the news media reports something doesn’t make it true. It is a false argument to clam that, because Newsweek ran an article, climate change science is invalid. This is yet another way the climate change deniers try to deceive people.

One of Mr. Thomas’ final statements is one of my favorite lies, and yes, it is a lie. He states that science is never settled and is being constantly revised. No, Mr. Thomas, this is just not true. Science is constantly being refined and constantly being made more accurate. To state that science is constantly being revised means we routinely come in and throw out everything we stated before. Again, let me state that this is a lie. We learn more and that leads to an improvement of what we understand, but what we learn must support what we already know. We are not going to come in and say that Newton’s law of gravity is wrong and throw it out. We might come in and say there is some factor we didn’t know about before that needs to be included. But, science at this point has been thoroughly tested. What we know may be incomplete, but is unlikely to be completely wrong and it is a lie for Mr. Thomas to say we can ignore climate science because we might come out at some time in the future and realize the science is all wrong. That is simply not going to happen. The science is way too sound.

Mr. Thomas finishes by stating this isn’t settled science and it isn’t even ‘real science’ according to the detractors, but those deniers don’t get interviewed by the media. In fact, one of the biggest problems we have is that the deniers are interviewed in the media as if they are equally credible. People then point at the one denier as evidence and ignore the thousands of scientists that claim climate change is real.

In summary, Cal Thomas did a hatchet job on the NBC documentary. He did not produce any single piece of evidence to refute the claims made in the show, yet he claims it isn’t ‘real science.’ The fact is, the science really is settled and the only way you can deny climate change is to deny science. Mr. Thomas at least succeeded in proving that point.

EndFossilFuelSubsidies is an example of how to lose the public

We really need to get off fossil fuels and make changes to how we do business at many levels. But, this does not mean we need to engage in extremist activities. Some of the measures being pushed by extremists would not only do as much damage as what we are currently doing, but they alienate a large part of the public as well.

An example of this is the activist group known as EndFossilFuelSubsidies. I am in favor of this, but we need to be careful of how we go about doing it. There is this perception that we can just take some action and it will fix things. For instance, many people think that we can just stop using coal-fired power plants. No,we can’t. The cost of replacing those plants will be enormous. That cost will be passed on to the customers. This would mean that people who are just barely getting by would suddenly see their electricity bills surge. Also, products made with that electricity would become more expensive, meaning that fewer products would be produced (or, they might just be replaced with imports) and that would mean layoffs. If we get rid of the coal-fired power plants we need to do it over a period of time. And, we must examine the alternatives. They can be just as bad, or even worse.

We need to make changes, but we must also win the public opinion battle. Extremist proposals won’t do it.

Thoughts on Climate Armageddon

I am an advocate of manmade global climate change, and have been for a long time now. I was first convinced of the scientific validity of this in the mid-1980s. Every day since then has reaffirmed my scientific belief.

At the same time, I have stood fast against alarmist predictions. I have a hard time seeing the validity in them and feel they work against the effort to convince the public and politicians that we need to take action now.

I read today an article on scientificamerican.com that I think perfectly illustrates the point. This article was adapted from the book, “The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It,” by Fred Guterl. Fred Guterl is not some light weight. He is the executive editor of Scientific American and has been doing science reporting for over 25 years. However, despite his credentials, Mr. Guterl is wrong in this article and I will show you why I say so. I have not read the entire book, so I will not comment on it.

The article focuses on nine ‘tipping points,’ as defined by climate scientist Tim Lenton at the University of East Anglia. Dr. Lenton identifies tipping points as a combination of factors that could lead to a sudden change in dynamic factors. In the case of the climate, these tipping points, he claims, could result in a change in the climate occurring in a matter of a few years or even a period of a few months. I do not dispute that each of the tipping points is a cause of concern. What I dispute is the idea that these might result in a catastrophic change in the climate over a short period of time.

Let me briefly summarize these tipping points:

1. Failure of the Indian Ocean monsoons. This is caused by the combination of pollution in the air that causes the monsoons to weaken and global warming which causes the monsoons to get stronger. The result is a kind of balancing act that could rapidly change the monsoons.

2. Failure of West Africa monsoons. The same as the Indian Ocean monsoons, except applied to the monsoons of West Africa.

3. Loss of Arctic sea ice. He postulates that as the summer ice sheet continues to get smaller and thinner it could eventually result in a year-round ice-free Arctic Ocean. This would result in continuous warming and a change in the ocean currents.

4. Collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. The ice sheet could collapse much more quickly that predicted (by a factor of 3 times faster), resulting is dramatic sea level rises worldwide.

5. Altering of the North Atlantic ocean currents. The change in fresh water in the North Atlantic Ocean due to the melting of the Arctic ice sheets and the Greenland glaciers will cause the dynamics of the North Atlantic currents to alter, greatly affecting the climate of Europe.

6. Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. See the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet above, only much bigger.

7. Collapse of Amazon rain forests. Droughts get longer and more severe in the Amazon, leading to a change in the climate.

8. Collapse of Canadian boreal forests. Same thing, but with the Canadian forests.

9. Altering of the El Nino – La Nina Southern Oscillation. The Southern Oscillation drives much of the world’s weather. Global warming will result in changes to this oscillation and cause changes to the world climate.

So, there are the nine tipping points he mentioned. Like I said before, I don’t have any particular problem with this list, it is the time frame that I have the biggest concern with. To begin with, he defined a tipping point as something that occurred over a few years or even a few months. Some of these things, he states, will take hundreds of years to occur. That hardly fits the definition of a ‘tipping point’ that was put forth. Specifically, he estimates the melting of the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica will take about 300 years. In both cases, this is dramatically less than the more than 1000 years that is predicted for both. Still, 300 years is quite a bit of time. In comparison, the United States is only 236 years old this year.

Looking at numbers 1 and 2, the two about the monsoons. We are already seeing changes in the monsoons and this is an issue of great alarm. Well over 1 billion people depend on these monsoons for their livelihood and their food supplies. However, while we are certainly concerned with the idea of these monsoons changing, the scientific evidence does not support the idea that they may change dramatically, or even cease, anytime in the next few years. Could it happen? Possibly. And, we need to be concerned and work to prevent it. But, it is not something we need to worry about happening within the next few years.

Number 3 deals with the loss of the Arctic ice sheet. This is, once again, something of great concern. As the ice sheet melts the dark ocean will absorb much more sunlight than the bright ice that reflected much of it. However, the North Pole is in darkness six months of the year and the entire Arctic Ocean experiences lengthy, and cold, winters. It is not believable that the Arctic Ocean will be ice free throughout the winter in the foreseeable future.

I already mentioned numbers 4 and 6, concerning the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Even if he is right, 300 years does not qualify as a tipping point. But, the change in the North Atlantic Ocean currents certainly does. This is one that he may be right about. In fact, one of the seldom discussed problems with the melting of the Arctic ice sheet is the fact that old ice is composed of fresh water. Ice slowly squeezes the salt out and so becomes more and more fresh as it ages. As this old ice is melting in the Arctic Ocean it is creating a large bubble of fresher water sitting on top of the ocean. There is concern that this bubble might be forced into the North Atlantic and we really aren’t sure what would happen if it does. Adding billions of tons of fresh water from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet will only make matters worse. And, what is all of that extra fresh water going to do to the currents around Antarctica?

Changes in the Amazon rain forest are already being observed. As the forest is chopped back, it no longer has the critical mass to affect the climate the way it use to. Already, we see that droughts are more frequent, more severe and last longer in the Amazon region. These droughts are causing trees to die, which will only make the situation more severe. There is no speculation on this. It is already happening. But, will it suddenly collapse in a matter of years? There isn’t anything to make me believe this is true. The Amazon is an area under great stress that we need to be actively working to save. But, I do not believe it will suddenly collapse in a matter of a few years.

All of this also applies to the Canadian boreal forests.

Number nine may or may not be valid. We are really learning a lot about the Southern Oscillation, but there is much we don’t understand. Could it suddenly change or disappear? Really, I don’t think we know enough at this time to say. But, neither does Dr. Lenton.

So, is there anything I see in this list that I am concerned with? Yes, every thing he listed is something I am concerned with. Do I believe these things will suddenly ‘tip over’? No, I really don’t think the time frame is that fast.

And, as I have stated before, none of this helps us. The public does not believe in a “climate Armageddon.” Claims like this tend to turn them off and make them think all scientists are alarmists. At the same time, I don’t ever want to be mistaken for someone that says we shouldn’t be concerned about these issues. We should. And, we need to start working on them right away. I just don’t believe that yelling ‘wolf’ is the best way to get people motivated.

Sooner or later, they won’t listen to you anymore.

Extremism works against reason

I read an article today in Scientific American about how a couple of studies that say we have already passed the tipping point in climate change. These studies claim we will see a catastrophic collapse in the world environment resulting in massive changes after 2050. They say we can expect to see the world population climb to about 8 billion people by 2040 only to see it drop to about 4 billion by 2100. The interesting thing about these studies is that the various factors they track appear to be moving in synch with the model predictions.  They reach their conclusions via different paths, but they both reach the same basic conclusion: We are in for trouble.

Well, maybe.

One of the things non-scientists miss is that scientifically valid studies come with error bars. This is the same as the plus or minus claim you see on political polls. The number quoted is the mid-range, but it could be anywhere between the plus or minus amount. I can throw a dart at a dart board and say that it hit the bulls eye, plus or minus the radius of the dart board and that would cover anything that actually managed to hit the board. But, people tend to focus on the quoted number, not the range.

If we look at the scientific forecasts about what is going to happen we see there are the ones that say there will be little change all the way to the ones that say there is no hope. The truth is, the reality will probably be somewhere in between. It is true that the extremes have a chance of being right, but there are many other options and they all have a chance of being correct, too. 

I believe we are in for some profound changes in our lives in decades to come. I hesitate to accept the premise that there is going to be a catastrophe and that billions of people will die. There are many reasons, but let me point on just one. The author of one of the studies stated that “Whereas in 1972 humans were using 85 percent of the regenerative capacity of the biosphere to support economic activities such as growing food, producing goods and assimilating pollutants, the figure is now at 150 percent—and growing.” But, another study says carbon sinks have not reached capacity and instead keep growing in their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.The two values are not identical, but they would be related. This causes a question in my mind about the validity of the conclusion of the doomsday scenario.

And, this is a real problem because I’m not the only one that thinks that way. The difference is that when I question the validity of this study I do not automatically reject other studies and dismiss global climate change in its entirety. Other people will do just that. They will point at this study, conclude that it is wrong and then reach the conclusion that all other climate change predictions are also wrong. This is a hard argument to deal with because there is some truth to it, namely, the extremist predictions are probably not correct. But, it is a false argument to say that just because you find fault with the one study, therefore all other studies are equally at fault.

That is where we are in many of the public debates. In that regard, extremist claims like this just do not make the work easier.

So, please, if you find fault with one study do not judge every other study by that standard. Just like the political polls, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Alarmism doesn’t help

It is difficult to convince a skeptical public that climate change is real and is not to our advantage. There is definitely a well and well funded group of deniers whose purpose it is to subvert science. They are greatly assisted in this when someone makes very alarmist statements.

One of the principle alarmists has been James Lovelock, author of several books on the Gaia Hypothesis which asserts Earth is a living entity and will react accordingly to our actions. Under this line of reasoning, Lovelock came to the conclusion that Earth will react in an extreme manner due to the way we are changing the climate. He even claimed in an interview that the human race will essentially be wiped out by the end of the century with only a few remaining breeding pairs living in the arctic region where the climate would be milder.

This kind of alarmism appeals to a certain crowd, mostly the same kind of people that believe the world will end on December 21, 2012. But, the majority of people see it for what it is, something that has no basis in reality. The problem is that real scientists warning of the consequences of climate change have been painted with the same brush. Once an extremist has turned off the public, it is difficult for serious people to get them back.

Now, Lovelock has backed off and stated he was wrong. Does this help? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it makes the case even worse because now the deniers will take his statements and use them against anyone discussing the consequences of climate change. There’s that paint brush again. They will argue that, since Lovelock admitted he was wrong in his claims, this is proof that all of the other claims are also wrong. This, of course, is a totally false argument, but it will be an effective one. People will hear what they want to hear.

What is really interesting is that the data Lovelock used proves the deniers are wrong. Lovelock points out the data does not show the kind of temperature increase he claimed would be happening by now. A plot of average temperature, by year, since 1970 shows the temperature climbing. It also shows this rate of increase has slowed since 2000, but is still increasing. The deniers claim that there has been no temperature increase this century and will even claim it has been cooling. But, as we can see, neither claim is true. The temperature may be increasing at a slower rate, but is still increasing. See for yourself (CREDIT: Kevin Trenberth):