I would argue, as an amateur scientist, that the case for preventable
anthropogenic climate change has not been made. By preventable, I mean
that what change we can make is not worth the cost, by anthropogenic I
mean man made, and by climate change I mean the negative effects which
are believed to be associated with an increase of energy in the environment.
There is merit to the core idea of anthropogenic climate change, but
because that merit is abstract and uncertain, I believe that politicians
have chosen to create false arguments which are more visually compelling
(such as the non-existent threat to the Polar Bears, or the non-existent
threat to the snows of Kilimanjaro.)
What follows is something I suspect you haven’t seen before — it took
me a fair while to work it out in detail — but it is the convincing and
correct part of the pro-global warming argument. I follow that with my
understanding of why the convincing and correct part of the argument
does not lead us to the conclusion that there is actually a problem.
The earths atmosphere possesses an energy budget. That budget posses a
single input — the sun, and a single output which is space. All energy
flows from the sun, to the earth, and then is radiated to space. There
is heat in the center of the earth, but that all originally came from
the sun as well, and that all will ultimately radiate to space as well.
That is the zero-sum game of thermodynamics. Energy flows from sources
All life on earth depends on what happens between the energy entering
the earths atmosphere, and leaving the earths atmosphere. On a long
enough time scale it is zero sum, but in the short term some of the
energy stays. Some of the energy heats the air on certain parts of the
globe more than other parts which leads to the winds, some part of the
energy evaporates water which makes the rains and rivers and lakes. And
some parts heat the surface of the earth, which provides energy to allow
chemical reactions to take place.
If you write the big equation all the energy coming in equals all the
energy flowing out and nothing can happen. But obviously something is
happening, so how do we account for that?
The second factor besides thermodynamics which determines what happens
in a physical or chemical equation is kinetics. Kinetics is basically
the question of how fast things happen — and can be intuitively
understood as follows:
Say you have a can, and the can has a small hole in it. If you pour
water into the can from a pitcher at a slower rate than if flows out the
hole, then all the water drains through to the ground. If you pour water
in at a faster rate, then the can fills.
Thermodynamics says the can will ultimately be empty, but at any given
moment it is unlikely that the rate you are pouring water in is going to
exactly match the rate that it is flowing out, so the water level in the
can is either raising or lowering. If the varying of your flow and the
size of the hole match pretty well, then the water level will cycle
within a fixed range, and you have a stable system.
Carrying this analogy to the earths energy budget — the sun is the
pitcher, radiation of energy from the surface of the earth, and the
atmosphere into space is the water flowing through the hole. What
controls the size of the hole is the heat capacity of the land, the heat
capacity of water, and the heat capacity of the air.
Now while the heat capacity of a substance is often represented as being
simple (it is approximated over limited ranges by a fixed constant which
you can look up in chemical literature) it is actually a quantum effect
which arises from the interaction of wavelengths of light with the
different lengths of chemical bonds in the substance, and the
wavelengths of the subatomic particles that make up the substance. It
varies with temperature and wavelength and a variety of other factors.
Because the temperature can effect the rate of energy capture, which in
turn can effect the temperature, the equations which describe this
process are called non-linear — which means we cannot solve them in
principle, we can only solve approximations of them. There are hundreds
of different feedback points like this in the actual over all equation
describing energy capture and climate effect.
We have no experience whatsoever solving equation systems of this size,
it is a trial and error process of what to include and what to ignore.
All molecules capture energy but lets look at carbon dioxide. Carbon
dioxide has bonds from the carbon to the oxygen molecules — these bonds
can capture certain wavelengths of light, and the electrons which move
around the different atoms in the molecule can capture wavelengths of
light. When I say light I mean the total budget of electromagnetic
radiation from cosmic rays all the way to radio waves, not just visible
So, the sum of the energy from the sun which is captured in the atoms
and bonds of the chemicals on the surface and in the atmosphere of the
earth is what makes up the water that is in the cup of our model. That
is the energy which is available for life on earth.
You may have heard of “disapative structures” — these are structures
which form spontaneously when the free-flow of energy is interrupted —
like the bounce back of water falling down a water fall, these
structures appear to develop against the laws of thermodynamics, but the
structures which make them up are actually just more efficient ways for
the energy to organize itself on its path of dissipation.
Now, all of the energy that is stored is not radiated in the same
wavelengths which it was stored in, which makes everything more
complicated. A simple visual example of this is the blue of the sky.
When sunlight hits the oxygen molecules in the atmosphere, some energy
is absorbed, and then, because of the structure, or bond lengths and
electron placement of Oxygen, blue light is given off. Carbon dioxide is
like this, but it gives off light in the infra-red part of the spectrum,
which we can’t see, but feel on our skin as heat. Water also has a
similar effect as carbon dioxide. (how similar is a matter of debate,
but it is similar enough that water is also categorized as a greenhouse gas)
All gases participate in the energy budget, but some gases capture more
energy than others, and those gases get labeled as “greenhouse gases” —
they aren’t a physically special category — all mater in all phases
captures some wavelengths of energy. But carbon dioxide captures a lot
of energy per the amount of it in the atmosphere.
So we return to our can analogy. The more carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere, the smaller the hole in the bottom of the can, and the more
water (which in our analogy is energy) backs up in the system. That
energy is then available to evaporate water, to drive winds, and to heat
the surface of the earth.
No-one denies that any of this is happening — so to say that “carbon
dioxide contributes to the warming of the earth” is strictly true.
The question is “how much?” Skeptics (like me) say that since the
concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is only about 300
parts per 1000000, and water — also a greenhouse gas, is in a
concentration of about 1 part per 100, that it isn’t very much at all.
Proponents of anthropogenic global warming say that it is a dangerous
amount. The head of the IPCC recently claimed that is was so dangerous
that we should spend the “reasonable” amount of 3 trillion dollars,
annually, to address it. Sweden, who gave him a million dollars and a
medal for this claim, presumably will not be paying the tab. Nor,
presumably, will many of their people starve from the higher cost of
food, and decrease of capital available for aid and investment.
Unfortunately “How much?” is not an easy question to answer. The reason
why the question cannot be simply answered is that the physics of the
energy capture is not completely understood — so we only have
approximations of how much of a difference the different gaseous
components contribute. And the second part is that the energy does not
all go into surface temperature. The resulting energy balance of the
planet is contained in all of the complex molecules that make up life
and the nutrient cycles (all of those cycles contain captured energy),
all of the energy of the combined storms on the earth, the flow of the
rivers, the flow of the ocean currents, the flows of the air currents
and the temperature which varies dramatically from feature to feature,
and even from level to level of the different features. So, for example,
there is a great deal of energy contained in underwater warm currents,
some of which are mapped and some of which are not.
And of course, all of those features radiate energy away as well, which
is something else we know about, but cannot model.
My bottom line is: people are arguing about spending 3 trillion dollars
annually on something they don’t understand. More importantly than that,
some of those people are lying.
For instance — we do not understand these features well enough to model
them. The models that we do have are not falsifiable — there is no way
to tell if they are correct because we have never made models which are
that complex before. We do not have methods to reliably evaluate them.
The Japanese built the largest supercomputer in the world (since
surpassed) to address this problem, but what good is that when we have
neither firm models to run on the computer, nor good data to compare the
results to? At best the models can be said to agree with themselves.
And there is no “consensus”, nor is any consensus possible about what
the final models will look like. There might be some good guesses out
there, and maybe god has provided special insight to Al Gore (in his
book he writes of being called to a great moral battle), but for mere
human beings reasoning by the evidence there are no grounds to conclude
that anything very dramatic or terrible is about to happen.
Of course god was talking to George Bush too, and that turned out well
despite all the evidence to the contrary… or so I’m told.
Here I have only addressed the flaw in the principle argument, if
you are interested in a through debunking of the follow-along arguments
(such as hurricane frequency, malaria, flooding in China etc) I
recommend Bjorn Lomberg’s short and readable book “Cool It” — it is
only $12, which is considerably less than one months heating bill will
be raised if you allow this bullshit to go much further .
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