The International Conference on Climate Change – Part II

The second installment of a series

Your humble correspondent was in Washington last week to cover the most recent (Third) International Conference on Climate Change, which was organized by the Heartland Institute.

This is the second in what will be a series of reports on the event; you can find Part I here.

As promised last Friday, in this part we’ll discuss the release of the massive report by the Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), and get some gems of wisdom from Anthony Watts, Fred Singer, Willie Soon, and Harrison Schmitt.

More below the fold….

The Washington event served as the venue for the release of the first edition of the report “Climate Change Reconsidered,” issued by the Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC). (I know – “NIPCC” is basically “Not-IPCC.” :) ) This is quite a massive volume, running to nearly 900 pages. Anyone who is interested can find out more details here – where the entire document (or just select pieces of it) can be downloaded. The editors and compilers of the report are Dr. Fred Singer and Dr. Craig Idso.

Dr. Singer made the lengthiest remarks in association with the release of the report; some highlights follow here.

Dr. Singer noted that the IPCC claim that any warming of the climate in the past fifty years is human-caused simply doesn’t hold water – in fact, their own evidence (as detailed in the report) actually points to exactly the opposite conclusion. He also noted a basic fact that is usually rather self-evident to most natural scientists and engineers – that complex natural systems are robust, and are ordered so as to dampen the effects of external forcings.

He also noted that a critical problem now is that while it would be congenial to be able to discuss “climate change” as a scientific issue, the center of gravity has shifted to other agendas – and has now morphed into being mostly about money and power.

Dr. Singer mentioned his identification of eight disputed and unsolved problems associated with the climate change debate; I’ll come back to the detailed list a little later (from his formal presentation later in the morning). But he noted that the two most critical issues are sensitivity and feedback – the sensitivity of the system (and thus the degree of its response) to external forced stimuli, and the nature (both quantitative and qualitative) of the various feedback mechanisms (mechanisms that are required to make any case for large-scale human-forced climate change).

Dr. Singer concluded by noting again that the battle for the moment has been focused not on science – but on politics and the favor-seeking of various special-interests. As has been the big news on this topic to come out of Capitol Hill of late, he noted that 85% of the emission credits under the latest cap-and-trade proposal would not be auctioned off – but would be given away; this is obviously a move away from even the facsimile of a “market-based” system to one that is almost entirely a spoils system for favored interests.

Dr. Idso made a few brief remarks. The most notable was the observation that there has been a revival among climate alarmists in crude, mandated forms of population control. This has indeed been a noticeable and disturbing occurrence, since it shows the lengths to which the climate alarmists are prepared to go in their attempts to “fight climate change.”

Dr. Idso also noted that the IPCC has long had a penchant for trying to make hay out of occasional extreme weather events – and has been completely over the top in scare-mongering about this topic. I can add to this comment that this is a danger inherent in the observation of particular specific “events” in a statistical, stochastic system – one that will naturally produce some number of “events” that are far from the mean behavior of the system; this sort of cherry-picking can easily fool the uninformed, and can easily be manipulated by the dishonest. The best quotidian analogy that I can provide would be to note that when you roll a pair of dice, you occasionally roll a 2 or a 12 – the system will naturally produce such a result occasionally; however, it can be tempting to ignore the overall statistical behavior and start screaming anytime that a 2 or 12 is rolled that this occurrence is immediate prima facie evidence that the dice are loaded.

A final topic that Dr. Idso mentioned was the recent scare-attempt of claiming that increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations will lead to a disastrous acidification of the oceans; this is something that came up in the comment-discussions following the posting of Part I, and we can briefly revisit the discussion here (and we can await a proper discussion by our resident Ph.D-chemist diarist on this one :) ).

The basic non-quantitative science is simple – if you force carbon dioxide into water, the water will become more acidic (through a reaction that produces carbonic acid); in fact, you can do this at home by filling a glass half-full with water and blowing into the water through a straw until you nearly pass out.

However, the problem remains one of quantity. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere remains rather trivial (a few hundred ppmv, as discussed in Part I); that amount of CO2 is so tiny that any meaningful change in the pH of the ocean just isn’t possible. The only way to make anything happen would be to require that CO2 absorption be confined to a vanishingly-thin layer of water at the top of the ocean and that this vanishingly-thin layer remain in place and undisturbed/unmixed.

The main fear-mongering on this issue is the claim that even if there are tiny changes in the pH of the ocean due to the absorption of atmospheric CO2, the chemistry of sea creatures that use calcium carbonate as a means of extracting calcium for building their shells is so sensitive to seawater pH levels that they will cease to produce shells – collapsing the entire food chain. As is usual for such alarmist claims, they claim ultra-extreme sensitivity for natural systems that are (not surprisingly) rather robust; in addition, those claims do not hold up against the history of ocean changes and shelled marine creatures as seen in the fossil record.

It seems that “ocean acidification” is the scare-mongering equivalent of the military principle of “defense-in-depth.” One chemical reality about carbon dioxide is that it is very, very soluble in water (which, among other things, is the basic-science foundation for a soft-drinks empire based in Atlanta). If the oceans are able to serve as a marvelous “sink” for extra atmospheric carbon dioxide, then atmospheric carbon dioxide increases are less of a worry. However, this requires that a new fear be manufactured as the next line of defense – and “ocean acidification” seems to have been (non-quantitatively) invented to serve this role.

The next event was a presentation-and-panel session involving four contributors. Those who followed the March event in New York City will note some repetition; this was of course intentional, since the objective was to bring the earlier-discussed information to within walking distance of Capitol Hill.

Anthony Watts gave his usual enlightening-and-humorous presentation about the siting and “quality” issues of various weather-reporting stations around the country. This should seem to be an obvious concern, since it is the data from these stations that are regularly used (and abused?) in discussions of climate change. As far as I can tell, this little project (about which you can read more here) flowed out of one of those simple little conservations of the sort that many of us with technical backgrounds regularly find ourselves engaged in – in this case, we hear all the time about the data from these stations…. but had anyone actually bothered to examine the stations and their environments, so as to judge the quality of the data that might be coming from them?

Anthony’s run-down of the various reporting stations around the country is a bit of a head-shaker – and it always reinforces my view that the minuscule parsings of temperature that are part-and-parcel of climate alarmism are simply unjustified on the grounds of the data collection uncertainties alone. He noted that this should indeed be a concern – since his analysis indicates that just the measurement uncertainties and errors (in a variety of facets) associated with the stations are much larger than any potential “signal” of global warming or climate change.

A critical problem is that these stations – in content, location, etc. – have never been subjected to any sort of quality control analysis or quality control specifications. Stations are in the middle of parking lots, next to air conditioners, and so forth – again, there is not (and never has been) a rigorous set of specifications constructed with regard to the stations and the immediate environments that they are sampling.

Another interesting sidelight about the stations has to do with the addition of new measuring equipment to the newer station models. The prior generation of stations was able to report data wirelessly – providing some flexibility in specific station location. However, due to some newer equipment in the newer station models, the stations now require that a data collection cable be attached; this has caused a number of stations to be moved from untenable locations to nearby locations that are more readily connected to the data cabling…. but of course moving a station to a different local environment perturbs the measured results vs. the prior location.

With some two-thirds of the stations across the country now examined (and ranked for quality), a variety of trends and patterns are making themselves evident. One clear trend is that the stations that are better-sited tend to also report cooler results.

While the present study has been systematically focused on the United States, some effort has begun in examining other reporting stations around the world. The early indications are that the global situation is even worse; a particular note was made of the reporting station at the Rome airport, which is apparently cited in the jet-blast zone at the end of a runway.

Metrology is an oft-neglected topic – and indeed, given the small numbers being tossed around as “solid-fact” in this sphere, it’s interesting to see how the entire measurement system is far from perfect.

Prof. Fred Singer gave a presentation on trying to work between the science and the politics of climate change. He noted that the present models are not even able to properly “back-predict” the measurement results back-compiled during the 20th century. This is pointing out a very clear fault line between the “models” and the actual measurements that we do have.

Dr. Singer identified eight open issues (as noted earlier) at the present time in his view of climate science and climate change:

(1) How sensitive is the climate to external forcings? Many forcings that are claimed to be as large as 3.0C could just as easily be as little as 0.3C.

(2) What is the nature of the feedback mechanisms involving clouds and water vapor? Even beyond the quantitative analysis, the qualititative situation needs to be clarified – particularly when the IPCC models rely on positive feedback mechanisms (e.g., warming decreases cloud cover) that seem to be counter-intuitive.

(3) Are there natural forcings that are large enough to be significant? Is solar variability large enough to cause meaningful changes in terrestrial temperatures? Are internal system oscillations large enough to have similar effects?

(4) Is there “committed warming” (warming that will happen regardless of anything else) in the pipeline? How much? When?

(5) There is a clear discrepancy between the reported temperatures from land stations and those from the sea surface – is this real, or just a measurement artifact?

(6) What is the mean residence time for a CO2 molecule in the atmosphere? This is actually a critical factor in attempts to predict the effect of CO2 on global temperature, since the sooner a CO2 molecule is “sunk” somewhere, the less time it has to cause anything to happen. Present estimates (guesstimates?) run all the way from 5 years to 3000 years – but a specific resolution would provide critical understanding.

(7) What causes the very abrupt climate change events that have been observed in the record? The data that have been assembled from a variety of methods seem to indicate that the planet has experienced a number of very sudden changes in climate and temperature at various times in the past – long before human activity began to be significant. The most recent was the apparent very rapid end to the last Ice Age some 13,000 years ago. No one has any real idea why this happened, why it happened so rapidly – or why these rapid changes seem to have happened many times.

(8) What is the exact story with sea level rises? (Given the tiny numbers often bruited about this topic, and given what one sees with waves breaking on the beach, I remain befuddled about claimed measurements of mm-scale changes in “mean sea level.”)

Dr. Singer noted in closing that the best data comes from satellite measurements – since these are the simplest to control and “baseline.” Only satellite data is sufficiently-accurate for the sort of small-scale parsing inherent in the “climate change” problem. There are some thirty years of such data by now – and they show that there has been very little change during that period. Unfortunately, we have only that short time span of good data. As Anthony Watts’ work has shown, the ground station data is possessed of uncertainties that are much larger than the parsings necessary demanded by problem. With no ability to go back in time and fix those problems, those data have been lost forever.

Dr. Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics had a few words to say about the Sun and climate. Dr. Soon fingers the sun as the major factor involved with climate change; personally, I lean toward the “statistical noise” school of thought (at least for the past 120 or so years for which we have a large amount of data) for temperature behavior; however, there are other factors and longer-term trends that appear to correlate closely with solar behavior.

There are two extremely important points that Dr. Soon made clear and that need to be understood.

The first is that carbon dioxide is clearly not a driver of climate – either quantitatively or qualitatively. Carbon dioxide levels have been increasing steadily for quite some time – but the climate data shows up-and-down variability during that time.

The second is an even more important item to understand: There is no “magic knob” that can be turned or adjusted to specifically control the climate (or the weather). It is somewhat surprising that a school of thought has arisen that we humans can quantitatively control the climate (and temperatures) by adjusting the concentration of one trace gas in the atmosphere – this seems to almost self-define hubris.

With regard to the climate models, Dr. Soon provided the best wisecrack of the day: “‘GIGO’ now means, ‘Garbage In, Gospel Out.’”

As I noted in Part I, one problem with “computer models” is their necessity to be semi-empirical or mostly-empirical – and this leaves them weak in making any predictions that go outside the range of the input data that was used to construct the model. I’ve seen models like this all the time over a number of years in a number of fields – and those sorts of observations instill a certain discipline. Basically, if a model is producing nutty results when it is running beyond the data-base range, the model is telling you that it doesn’t work where you are trying to use it.

However, another problem that I noted (from experience) in Part I is that even good “inputs” don’t guarantee good outputs. Often a larger-scale model is created by breaking the problem up into sub-components, creating good models for the sub-component phenomena, and then stitching those sub-components together into the desired large-scale model. The reality is that the outcome of such an approach is often a large-scale model in which the tiny pieces interact to produce crazy results. This is just the nature of the problem, unfortunately.

Some final comments came from Harrison Schmitt – geologist, former astronaut, last man to walk on the Moon, and former Senator from New Mexico.

He noted that while growing up in southwestern New Mexico, his father kept rather detailed records of precipitation – and that he found a correlation between precipitation and the 11-year solar cycle.

He also noted that amidst all the discussions, one key challenge was being neglected. We simply need to find ways to produce more energy.

I’ll stop there for now, and let everyone digest this “meal” and make comments.

In Part III, we’ll look at economic issues – with comments from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), David Tuerck of the Beacon Hill Institute, and Prof. Gabriel Calzada of King Juan Carlos University in Spain (the author of that now-famous study of the impact of Spain’s “green drive” on itself).

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