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Yale 62

Some Brief Thoughts About Climate Change

By John Livingston

PLEASE NOTE: THIS ESSAY WAS UPDATED 07/17/21 TO INCORPORATE JOHN’S MOST RECENT EDITS, SO EVEN IF YOU READ IT EARLIER, IT’S WORTH ANOTHER LOOK. APOLOGIES FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE.

    GOLDILOCKS

In the search for life as we know it on other planets, the fragility of life becomes a dominant conclusion. Certainly the Goldilocks epithet of “Not too hot, not too cold” on earth applies but, more than that, the constancy of the sun’s energy for billions of years necessary to support the evolution of the atmosphere and conditions for life is near miraculous.

Consider first the sun itself. Every second, nuclear fusion in the sun turns six hundred and fifty-seven million tons of hydrogen into six hundred and fifty-three million tons of helium. The other four tons are hurled into space as energy and light, and amazingly, we on earth pick up only four pounds of that energy per second. That tiny bit, however, unmissed by the sun, makes the difference between life and death for us. Next, our protective atmosphere has evolved through the past two billion years leading to its present composition of 99% nitrogen and oxygen with less than 1% of the “life gas,” carbon dioxide. Life and the symbiosis of plants and animals depend on the stability of this mixture and especially upon this small fraction of CO2 enabling plants to live and thus ourselves. Understanding these delicate balances of the earth’s solar heat as well as its atmospheric composition is important in our assessments of climate changes.

    THE POPULAR NARRATIVE

Climate change is often described as an “existential” threat by the media and politicians and proposed solutions come with significant economic impacts. Descriptions such as imminent extinction or catastrophic natural events commonly appear in the press as well as attendant exaggerations and factual omissions. Weather events such as tornadoes or hurricanes are often ascribed to climate changes: changes that in fact can only be determined over much longer periods of time, long before precise measurements were possible. One creditable scientist has described the climate “crisis” as actually being a crisis in candor. Another, Michael Crichton, in his provocative novel State Of Fear, dispels the myths and alarm of global warming with credible facts. Clearly climate fears are often used to manipulate the objectives of media, politicians and academic grant-funding.

    NATURAL CAUSES OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Figure 1


Figure 2. (a) Geometry of the Sun-Earth System. The Earth’s orbit is an ellipse with the Sun at one focus. the Earth moves around its orbit in the direction of the arrows. Simultaneously it spins around its axis, which is tilted to the plane of the equinoxes and the solstices to shift slowly around the Earth’s orbit. (b) About 11,500 years ago the winter solstice occurred near the aphelion (the most distant point of the orbit from the Sun) whereas today it occurs at the opposite end of the orbit near the perihelion (the closest approach to the Sun).

 

In truth, climate changes are known to have been part of the earth’s evolution for billions of years; changes taking place long before homo sapiens. What is not well known and at the root of climate disagreements are the relative impacts of both natural and human causes of climate change. As a geologist, I have been impatient for years with the omission of natural causes in most discussions assessing climate changes. A timely and substantial contribution to these discussions has been recently made by Steven Koonin in his book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t and Why It Matters.

It is also well known that the earth has had many glacial cycles in the past million years and that we have been in an ongoing inter-glacial warming period for the past 15,000 years or so. (Figure 1). During this time sea level has risen about 300 feet and global temperatures have increased several degrees centigrade. Now, in our current inter-glacial period, the rates of these changes have diminished and a well-documented Little Ice Age in Europe between 1400 to 1800 AD interrupted a much warmer medieval period lasting 500 years before. This cooling resulted in famine and starvation as well as belief in supernatural origins that led to witch hunts and widespread massacres. And perhaps a harbinger of a new cycle of glacial cooling?

The most plausible explanation of these pre-industrial times of global cooling and warming relates to the astronomical cycles of the earths eccentric orbit which itself rotates around the sun about every 100,000 years as well as shorter periods of axial tilt and precession cycles. (Figure 2). A causal relationship is that the glacial/inter-glacial cycles are also about 100,00 years. Together, these complex motions cause a progressive change in the earth-sun distance and the amount of the sun’s radiant heat. Astronomers refer to these as Milankovitch cycles after the eponymic Serbian astronomer of the earlier 20th century.

There is no scientific data to suggest that today’s global warming might not be mostly due to these natural ongoing causes. In any case, it is clear that more scientific research needs to be done and given the known rates of sea level and temperature rise there is certainly time to do it. To suggest that climate changes are mostly anthropogenic, while not factually based, is usually supported in the media.

    CARBON: TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE?

Industrial activity and burning fossil fuels contribute billions of tons of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere that is by far the largest contribution to our greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, the present day concentration of atmospheric CO2 as noted above is only about 400ppm or less than 1/2 percent. Biologic research on plants has determined much higher CO2 levels existed in the past and has steadily declined to the present 400ppm. Presumably carbon has been gradually absorbed in the plants, animals and sediments of the earths crust. Crop plants evolved about 400 million years ago (mya) when atmospheric CO2 was about 5000ppm. Evergreen trees and shrubs appeared about 360 mya and CO2 of about 4000ppm with deciduous trees appearing about 160 mya when CO2 levels were about 2200ppm. On the other hand, during the last ice age, the much colder water in oceans absorbed more CO2 and levels dropped dangerously low to about 180ppm or close to life-threatening levels to both plants and animals. Conversely, the current warming of oceans with diminished adsorption of CO2 might explain at least some of the current rise in CO2 levels and certainly, as a known natural cause, needs to be quantified.

What we can do, if anything, about affecting climate change or the present global warming comes down to first addressing two key questions: one, what are the relative effects of natural and man-made causes of warming; and two, are greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide from industrial activities, the main culprit of human-related warming? To suggest that trillions of dollars should now be spent globally in carbon reduction measures before answers to these questions are known seems premature. One MIT study concluded that even if every signatory country to the Paris Accord were to achieve their assigned carbon reduction quotas (unlikely), the average global temperatures might only decline by about .5 degrees centigrade. With a cost of untold trillions and severe economic disruption.

The final question about carbon’s efficacy in global warming was raised in a study that concluded carbon has had a diminishing effect on the suns radiation with increasing concentration. This exponential calculation means the first 40ppm would have had a temperature effect equal to the subsequent 400ppm today and future increases regardless of size would have negligible effects on temperature. In any case, according to most scientists, a doubling of the current CO2 level would only raise the earth’s temperature about 1 degree C. Hardly cause for alarm. More scientific research is clearly needed. Current ice cores now being obtained by Antarctica research teams should provide valuable insight into past fluctuations of global temperatures and variations in atmospheric carbon dioxide. As Dr. Koonin concluded, climate change causes are presently Unsettled.

In conclusion, there is no evidence that catastrophic climate changes have occurred in the past and hence unlikely to occur in the future: a premise in geology called uniformitarianism. Sea level and temperature changes measured in the past are minimal, consistently incremental and in accord with credible climate models. Considering the cost benefits, it seems that climate change resources being proposed would be better spent addressing the solvable and shorter term problems of pollution. Diplomacy among nations to adopt less polluting power sources than fossil fuels is certainly justifiable. In contrast to the most recent climate accord in Paris, future agreements should be made binding, otherwise so-called “free riders” will continue to pollute at will such as China and India, and particularly the Belt and Road initiatives of China to export hundreds of coal-burning electricity plants around the world. Meanwhile the USA should take leadership of pollution remedies as well as fund continuing research. In doing so, sanity over fear might prevail.

 

We welcome your comments below.

11 comments to Some Brief Thoughts About Climate Change

  • Larry Price

    John A very insightful and persuasive article. I can also guarantee that you will never ever be invited to a party on the Manhattan West Side or in Georgetown. Probably not in Napa either Thanks. Larry Price

  • David Bingham, MD

    An interesting background document.
    It appears from Figure 2b that while the summer solstice has been getting closer to the sun each year over the past century suggesting our US summers should be warmer while the winter solstice has passed the perihelion so perhaps winters should gradually getting colder, with the average changing very little. However, both summer and winter averages have become warmer over our lifetimes, and sea levels have been rising.

    Moreover, the article suggests there is little to worry about with an average temperature rise from human activity of 1 degree celsius, when our weather forecasters indicate that this average change not only makes storm winds significantly stronger, but also causes significantly changes the volatility of temperature fluctuations, so that we have both higher and lower temperature extremes that are devastating our agriculture and our safety from fire, flood and drought.

    Clearly, even if human activity only has affected the average temperature slightly, that change can have devastating impact. Congress doesn’t seem to be worried about spending trillions on defense although the country has already the ability to vaporize any enemy many times over, yet the article recommends no expenditure for mitigation of climate change, whether man-made or not, despite the benefits of such expenditures on diminishing air pollution and protecting our citizens from devastating fires, floods and drought, while providing meaningful jobs and stimulating the economy in a way that provides immediate and lasting benefits for humanity.

    I for one think it is foolhardy not to make expenditures which will save many times more than they cost. A stitch in time saves nine.

  • John I greatly enjoyed the article and the balance.

    I have one clarification for you – at least I think it would help. The article says

    Figure 2. (a) Geometry of the Sun-Earth System. The Earth’s orbit is an ellipse with the Sun at one focus

    Technically the sun is not AT one foci of the ellipse. Very near to it because of its mass but ….

  • Ken Luke

    Thank you John for the interesting and provocative, although unfashionable, article.

  • Lee Bolman

    It’s good to see John’s article stimulate further debate because the issues he discusses are so important. As John (and Steven Koonin in the book John references) write, over the long stretch of geologic history, earth has been both much warmer and much colder than it is now–times when much of North America was covered either by water or ice. Scientific understanding of how and why those changes have occurred is still evolving. (One of Steve Ripley’s links tackles this question.)

    In the shorter term, it’s only been a few decades since a consensus began to emerge that anthropogenic greenhouse gases were beginning to produce significant global warming with a variety of consequences, some potentially devastating. In the years since, the evidence supporting that consensus has grown stronger. (Koonin does some cherry-picking of data to argue otherwise, and maybe the years he spent as chief scientist for BP influenced his slant.)

    John is correct that carbon dioxide is only a small part of the atmosphere (99% of which is nitrogen and oxygen). CO2 is a trace gas and, along with methane and nitrous oxide, it’s very good at trapping heat. Greenhouse gases are vital up to a point, because without them earth would be a frozen planet. But beyond that point, we have a problem.

    Jim Baker, a climate scientist in the Obama administration, notes that global temperatures mostly stayed within a 1 degree range for the last 10,000 years, but then began to rise steeply in the late 20th century, at a rate of increase not seen in millions of years. The rise closely follows what you’d expect from the increase in greenhouse gases. A predictable consequence is a shift in extremes—more record highs, fewer record lows. The extraordinary highs in the northwest this year are one example, but any single example is just an anecdote. For a longer term case, Boston in the late 19th century had record lows as often as record highs. In recent years it’s experiencing about 8 times as many record highs as lows. Globally, temperatures actually trended down from 1880 to 1910, but it’s been up ever since, and 19 of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 20 years.

    There’s still uncertainty about where we’re going from here, and that’s a problem. We don’t know for sure if we’re going to be closer to the best or worst case of possible futures. The consequences of the greenhouse effect could be relatively moderate, but recent trends are scary. Climate change skeptics sometimes argue that since we don’t know, there’s no point in incurring major costs to abate something that’s hard to solve and may not be a problem. But I buy homeowner’s insurance even though I don’t expect my house to burn down. Recent experience, including this year’s heat, drought and fires in the western US, or the current floods in Europe (which may be the worst in Belgium’s history), lead me to think we should buy insurance while scientists continue to develop more clarity and hone their forecasts, and policy-makers continue the search for better solutions.

  • william weber

    Great article! It brought to mind the mini cold period in Northeastern America in 1816-1817 which has been labeled the “year with no summer” when the lakes remained frozen thru the normal summer months. This event was attributed to a volcanic eruption in the Pacific area and led to out migration of colonists in this part of our country to the West.
    Which brings to mind the question as to the possibility of current volcanic activity can be contributing to the apparent increase in global temperatures? And what about all the forest fires and burning in the Amazon?
    Do you think Al Gore should get a copy of your article?

  • Jim Wechsler

    I am sorry to bring a somewhat stridently argumentative tone to this discussion, but I have been amassing information on this subject for years. As a side-effect of that effort, it has become all too clear that it is easy to quote some individuals and to cite certain observations and facts that would seem, at first glance, to undermine the idea af a likely-impending climate crisis. To see an analysis of Steven Koonin’s book go here https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/05/a-critical-review-of-steven-koonins-unsettled/. Note also that Michael Crichton is not a scientist; he has a medical degree, which is very different. So you can understand where I am coming from: I was a microbial geneticist/molecular biologist who did and was expected to do carefully controlled experiments. One does not devise rigorous experiments on a whim but rather because of some suggestive observation.

    As to the “climate crisis” question, the greenhouse effect and carbon dioxide”s role are not a new concept. Indeed, the idea was first put forward in the 1820’s, experimentally confirmed in the 1890’s by Arrhenius, and named the “greenhouse effect” in 1901. The importance of this effect emerged in the 1960’s.

    Several very important points have not been mentioned. The world has warmed by 5-6 ºC when emerging from glaciation periods. Such temperature increases took about 5,000 years. Global heating at the moment is about 8 times as fast. Is that an anomaly? Perhaps; want to stake your life on it? Also, global temperature is not the full story. The rising temperature has a profound effect on both surface water and groundwater, which effectively raises the threat by some exponent greater than one. These effects on water directly affect crops. All five of the world’s major food growing areas are currently showing clear signs of stress. For the U.S., imagine California’s agricultural output suddenly falling to 50% of normal? What about to 30%?

    What can we do? We could work to arrest the buildup of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Is that scientifically and operationally feasible? The answer to that difficult question appears to be “Yes.” Is it morally reasonable, knowing what we know, to wait and see for even one more day?

  • Ken Merkey

    Great article. Hopefully, we will have many more sane and thoughtful approaches to climate change issues.

    We also need sane and practical policies to energy and the environment. Today, 12% of electrical power in the USA is generated by renewables. Of that, 11% is solar and 26% is wind. There is no question that we will be relying on traditional power sources for many years to come.

    A few thoughts:

    a) Where is all the power going to come from to power electric vehicles? Many projections suggest that solar power will grow from less than 2% today to over 20% by 2050. That seems highly aggressive. And what will the price per KW be?
    b) Why are we giving tax credits to EV buyers? Why is the federal government in the business of building EV charging stations? They don’t own any gas stations, do they?
    c) As someone who has spent years on a nuclear submarine, I can attest to its safety and practicality. It is by far the cheapest, safest, and least polluting of all energy sources.
    d) You cannot build a commercial wind farm or solar farm without federal ITC. The last three solar farms that were built in Nevada all used 50% ITC to make them economic (i.e., bankable). Even with all that ITC their cost per kilowatt is one of the highest of any energy source. Additionally, as a debtor nation ($30 trillion) we do not need any more “negative revenue.”
    e) We should focus on converting commercial vehicles to CNG (as China has done). Natural gas is one of our most plentiful and least expensive fossil fuels. It is also one of the least polluting.
    f) We should strive for energy independence. Let’s not kill pipeline projects, let’s frack more, and let’s drill.

  • Jim Wechsler

    I agree with the safety of nuclear power. It has the great advantage of being reliable and not carbon neutral but actually carbon negative. For a solid treatment of it, se “A Bright Future” by Joseph S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist, 2019. Public Affairs Books. The problem with nuclear power is the heavy scare tactics used years ago by Greenpeace with the phrase “No Nukes” and the inability of the general public to distinguish nuclear power plants from nuclear bombs. On the other hand, I completely disagree with more fracking and converting gasoline-powered vehicles to CNG.

  • Ken Merkey

    Jim,

    Thanks for the response. If we don’t frack and drill where is the power going to come from to charge all the EV batteries? I would be interested in your thoughts on the energy projections through 2050. Will we really get to 50% renewables?

    The people that put up the scare tactics on nukes have done the same thing for fracking. What is your objection to CNG?

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