Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Few Notes About Global Warming


James Killus

I had a recent exchange with a global warming skeptic named Bruce Hall, first in the comments section on Economist’s View, then in an email exchange. We were polite, amidst a certain degree of rancor, and that made the exchange pleasant enough that the “agree to disagree” option came up from the magic 8 ball. (But let it be acknowledged that I did give in to snarkiness with a few other posters, who rubbed me more the wrong way, so I guess I can’t claim politeness as my inevitable demeanor).

Part of the exchange was some historical background, which I’m expanding a bit here.


One of the claims sometimes made by global warming skeptics is that there was a time in the 1950s (or sometimes it’s said to have been in the 1970s), that there was a time when scientists were warning about an impending ice age. But, there was never a general scientific consensus, in the 1950s or any other time, that a new ice age was imminent. There was, of course, the recognition that we are currently in what is called an "interglacial" period, and that, other things being equal, another ice age would eventually return. However, the greenhouse gas hypothesis has been around for over a century now, and the CO2 readings from Mauna Loa in the mid-50s caught a lot of people's attention, with some pretty explicit greenhouse warnings dating back at least that far. Indeed, I saw one in an editorial in Analog. One the other hand, there was a cooling trend in the middle of the 20th Century. That was one reason for a lack of consensus about greenhouse warming.

There is now what I’d call at least a plurality of belief among climatologists that what was going on with mid-century climate was that the great increase in the use of high sulfur coal to generate electric power actually did have an aerosol cooling effect, at least on a local or regional basis. Climatologists are also very aware that there is a measurement bias in surface temperature readings, because so many are on land and so few at sea. Again, another reason why a consensus was slow to develop.

(As an aside, I'll note that there was a Fritz Leiber story in the 1940s, "Destiny Times Three" that presented a view of an ice age as a result of a nuclear war, not from "nuclear winter" but rather because enough of the Earth's lower crust had been exposed that rock weathering had removed so much CO2 from the atmosphere that "global cooling" resulted. I think that this was the first appearance of the greenhouse hypothesis in science fiction).

Now it so happens that I was a global warming skeptic for probably longer than I should have been, in retrospect. There were several things that changed my mind. One was that, in the late 80s and early 90s, James Hansen made a very persuasive case, including some spot on model predictions of the effects of the Pinatubo Eruption. Just as important was the paper by David J. Thompson in Science in 1995 that found a season change signal (actually a "flipping" local climates to more resemble a Mediterranean seasonal pattern), that dates back over a century.

(It’s interesting that, while checking on the date of the Thompson paper, I came across an article arguing that what Thompson was showing was a good thing. After all, who wouldn’t want an earlier spring? Why wouldn’t Labrador prefer to have a climate more like Spain? One might also ask why we shouldn’t want to get rid of all that ugly ice in Greenland. Lush forests would be much prettier than ice caps, if it weren’t for the fact that Florida would then be underwater.)

Anyway, Thompson’s point was that greenhouse gases had, in fact, been changing climate during all the time that climatologists had been wondering why greenhouse gases weren’t changing climate. Now I will admit that the statistical methods that Thompson used are pretty arcane, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who didn’t undergo a similar “conversion reaction” as I did. I am trained in both advanced statistics and ecological modeling, however, and I found Thompson’s paper both persuasive and disturbing.

The other part of my "conversion" as it were, has more to do with philosophy. First, uncertainty is not our friend. To say that some potentially catastrophic global phenomenon is uncertain does not reduce the degree to which we should be concerned; if anything, it should increase our concern, because we do not have any better a handle on the downside potential than we have on the economic costs of reducing CO2 emissions. In fact, we have less of an idea of the potential future costs of climate change.

Secondly, in the most fundamental way, this is a matter of rights. No one has the right to change the nature of the air you and I breathe, nor does anyone have the right to change global climate (or, pacé Thompson, regional ecosystems). Yet the first is undeniably happening, and the evidence of the second is very strong, strong enough to have produced a real scientific consensus on its existence, if not its magnitude.

One might argue for the "rights" of people to conduct economic activities, to buy and sell goods, to burn coal, oil, or gas from their own property etc., but in fact, the massive emissions of CO2 that are currently occurring are due to organizational behavior, not the sum of individual behaviors. Governments set policies, with other large organizations such as corporations influencing and benefiting from those policies. And no matter what some libertarians might think, corporations are not simply "private;" they enjoy all manner of special, legally (i.e. governmentally) derived privileges. Also, and maybe even more to the point, corporations have much more influence over specific parts of public policy than do mere individuals.

Finally, there are large amounts of money being spent on what amount to disinformation campaigns of the sort noted in the EV thread. I know, for example, S. Fred Singer; I have read what he has written for the popular press, what he has managed to insert into technical publications via the comment process, and what he has testified to before congress. Singer is a perfect example of one of the "liars and charlatans" that the EV thread referred to, and anyone dealing with the issue needs to understand just how mendacious some of the actors are. If you delve far enough into the background of much of the global warming skeptic literature, you'll find Singer and his Science & Environmental Policy Project. Singer is one of those people that, if you ever find yourself on his side in an argument, you need to check your bearings very carefully. And Singer has been against the theory of stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming, and the dangers of cigarette smoke and indoor air pollution. As I say, if you find yourself agreeing with Singer, take a careful look around at the company you’re keeping.

Finally, Mr. Hall mentioned nuclear power, as a non-greenhouse gas emitting power source. I'm actually a fan of what are called "accelerator driven spallation reactors," partly because they are so technically spiffy. However, nuclear power is another absolutely socialist enterprise; it requires massive government interference in the market for any form of nuclear power to be feasible (at the very least, standard insurance and liability requirements must be totally revised for the benefit of a nuclear industry), and it doesn't look to me like our country does a very good job at socialist enterprises, so it doesn't seem like that good a deal for our circumstances. One need only look at the absolute mess that has been made of the nuclear waste disposal process in this country to get the feeling that maybe we need to be looking at some other way out.

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There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.
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“The Divine Afflatus,” A Mencken Chrestomathy, chapter 25, p. 443 (1949)
... and one could add "not all human problems really are."
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SEARCH BLOG: FEDERAL RESERVE for full versions... or use the Blog Archive pulldown menu.

February 3, 2006
Go back to 1999-2000 and see what the Fed did. They are following the same pattern for 2005-06. If it ain't broke, the Fed will fix it... and good!
August 29, 2006 The Federal Reserve always acts on old information... and is the only cause of U.S. recessions.
December 5, 2006 Last spring I wrote about what I saw to be a sharp downturn in the economy in the "rustbelt" states, particularly Michigan.
March 28, 2007
The Federal Reserve sees no need to cut interest rates in the light of adverse recent economic data, Ben Bernanke said on Wednesday.
The Fed chairman said ”to date, the incoming data have supported the view that the current stance of policy is likely to foster sustainable economic growth and a gradual ebbing in core inflation”.

July 21, 2007 My guess is that if there is an interest rate change, a cut is more likely than an increase. The key variables to be watching at this point are real estate prices and the inventory of unsold homes.
August 11, 2007 I suspect that within 6 months the Federal Reserve will be forced to lower interest rates before housing becomes a black hole.
September 11, 2007 It only means that the overall process has flaws guaranteeing it will be slow in responding to changes in the economy... and tend to over-react as a result.
September 18, 2007 I think a 4% rate is really what is needed to turn the economy back on the right course. The rate may not get there, but more cuts will be needed with employment rates down and foreclosure rates up.
October 25, 2007 How long will it be before I will be able to write: "The Federal Reserve lowered its lending rate to 4% in response to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and massive numbers of foreclosures that threaten the banking and mortgage sectors."
"Should the elevated turbulence persist, it would increase the possibility of further tightening in financial conditions for households and businesses," he said.

"Uncertainties about the economic outlook are unusually high right now," he said. "These uncertainties require flexible and pragmatic policymaking -- nimble is the adjective I used a few weeks ago."

December 11, 2007 Somehow the Fed misses the obvious.
[Image from:]
December 13, 2007 [from The Christian Science Monitor]
"The odds of a recession are now above 50 percent," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "We are right on the edge of a recession in part because of the Fed's reluctance to reduce interest rates more aggressively." [see my comments of September 11]
January 7, 2008 The real problem now is that consumers can't rescue the economy and manufacturing, which is already weakening, will continue to weaken. We've gutted the forces that could avoid a downturn. The question is not whether there will be a recession, but can it be dampened sufficiently so that it is very short.
January 11, 2008 This is death by a thousand cuts.
January 13, 2008 [N.Y. Times]
“The question is not whether we will have a recession, but how deep and prolonged it will be,” said David Rosenberg, the chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch. “Even if the Fed’s moves are going to work, it will not show up until the later part of 2008 or 2009.
January 17, 2008 A few days ago, Anna Schwartz, nonagenarian economist, implicated the Federal Reserve as the cause of the present lending crisis [from the Telegraph - UK]:
The high priestess of US monetarism - a revered figure at the Fed - says the central bank is itself the chief cause of the credit bubble, and now seems stunned as the consequences of its own actions engulf the financial system. "The new group at the Fed is not equal to the problem that faces it," she says, daring to utter a thought that fellow critics mostly utter sotto voce.
January 22, 2008 The cut has become infected and a limb is in danger. Ben Bernanke is panicking and the Fed has its emergency triage team cutting rates... this time by 3/4%. ...

What should the Federal Reserve do now? Step back... and don't be so anxious to raise rates at the first sign of economic improvement.
Individuals and businesses need stability in their financial cost structures so that they can plan effectively and keep their ships afloat. Wildly fluctuating rates... regardless of what the absolute levels are... create problems. Either too much spending or too much fear. It's just not that difficult to comprehend. Why has it been so difficult for the Fed?

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Michigan, United States
Air Force (SAC) captain 1968-72. Retired after 35 years of business and logistical planning, including running a small business. Two sons with advanced degrees; one with a business and pre-law degree. Beautiful wife who has put up with me for 4 decades. Education: B.A. (Sociology major; minors in philosopy, English literature, and German) M.S. Operations Management (like a mixture of an MBA with logistical planning)