Heating Up to Global Warming

Do we really understand how much power we have to address global warming?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment

Skeptoid #39
April 16, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Russian

There are obvious signs that everyone can see, and that aren't being debated: the Earth is on a warming trend over the past century or so. Ice shelves and glaciers have been shrinking alarmingly everywhere. We know that there's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than ever before. Almost all climatologists draw a causal relationship between temperature and CO2, saying that CO2 creates the greenhouse effect, thus causing the higher temperatures. A few people draw the causal relationship in the other direction. Most people say the current trend is truly remarkable, but only if you choose a recent segment of climate history. Some people say that if you look back far enough you'll find many such ups and downs that have been far more dramatic than this one and have lasted many times longer, before there were those evil pesky humans around to cause it. The big question, which is significant because it's one that we probably can do something about, asks how much is human activity to blame for the current trend. Everyone agrees that it's at least partly to blame, but the estimates of how much range from 100% to .00001%. Regardless, it's non-zero, and it really should be zero, and everyone agrees that making it zero should be a goal. But we're left with many intractable questions: How much can we do? How much should we do? How much do we need to do? How much can we afford to do? How much can we get away with? All things considered, where do lines really need to be drawn?

Lots of people pretend to have the answers to those questions. In any debate on global warming, both sides will generally say something like "When you actually look at the data, it shows X, not Y." Well, who actually has looked at the data? I don't pretend that I have. I haven't gone down into the cave myself and examined the ice cores under the gas chromatograph. I haven't looked up the raw data from ocean temperature measurements in the Aegean Sea. I haven't personally measured rainfall across southern Africa over the past 100 years. I've seen Al Gore's movie, but that's a meta-analysis of some guy's meta analysis of some other guy's meta anaylsis. None of the clowns out there who presume to speak authoritatively about what the actual data shows have looked at any raw data. They've looked at someone's meta-analysis of data collected from many sources. Please, next time you're having a conversation on global warming, don't tell us what the data actually shows, because you saw a guy on TV tell us what the data actually shows. No one person can or ever will "look at all the data." A person can look at an infinitesimally small chunk of data that's out of all meaningful context, but let's get real here: the Earth is about the most complicated system imaginable. NEC's Earth Simulator supercomputer, for years the fastest supercomputer on the planet, is dedicated to this task, and they still can't tell us whether it's going to rain tomorrow. Think about that. The Earth is simply way too complicated for any person to be able to claim to understand.

Al Gore says he understands it, and he made the movie An Inconvenient Truth to tell us how alarming the situation really is. Senator James Inhofe says he understands it, and he wrote the Skeptic's Guide to Debunking Global Warming to tell us how alarmed we should be at how alarmingly the alarmists alarm us. Whether you're feeling alarmed or not, I'm sure you agree that it's most responsible to listen to both sides if this is an issue where you feel taking sides is appropriate. I'm afraid I don't see it that way. I'm skeptical of anyone who says we know how much we have to reduce emissions.

Here's the way I look at global warming: I don't personally have enough expertise to accurately interpret all the information flying around from both sides, and I can't claim to know for sure how much human activity is responsible for our current trend in average temperatures. But there is one thing that I do know, from simple common sense: Pumping carbon dioxide or any other pollutants into our air is bad. In the United States, the environmental movement successfully killed nuclear power, requiring us to depend almost entirely upon coal, oil, and natural gas power plants. Various studies put the number of annual premature deaths in the United States caused by emissions from these power plants at between 30,000 and 60,000 (thank you, environmental movement). Imagine at least one 9/11-style terrorist attack every month, and that's our ongoing death toll caused just by our power plants. This doesn't even include emissions from manufacturing or transportation. Imagine what this number must be in China, a country with 500 times our annual death toll from coal mining accidents. No matter how you slice it, atmospheric pollution is a horrible, horrible thing. So one way to look at it is — global warming aside — we should stop all emissions immediately, now, yesterday. Everyone already agrees it would be great if we lived in Fantasyland and had zero emissions. And little birds singing on our fingertips.

But it's not as simple as that. As evil and politically incorrect as it may sound, the fact is that everything has its cost/benefit ratio. Let's say we turned off all the coal, oil, and natural gas fired power plants in the country. In about 30 minutes, we're back in the Bronze Age. Everyone on life support in a hospital is dead. Every factory stops production. The Gross National Product drops to virtually zero almost immediately. We run out of food in about a week and start cannibalizing each other. That's not the answer.

Clearly, either extreme is unacceptable, in fact ridiculous. We musn't keep generating greenhouse gases at the current rate, and we can't simply stop it all. And in the attempt to find a happy medium, we can't expect every individual and company to make expensive and complicated changes, in many cases without good alternatives, out of the generosity of their hearts. Sheryl Crow can sing all she wants, but people and industry are still going to do what they need to do. So this means that to get anything done, we have to impose rules and regulations on everybody — like, for example, the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement attempting to address 55% of global greenhouse gases from 160 countries.

I believe the United States was clearly right in its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, because of its fundamentally nonsensical exemptions. In short, the Kyoto Protocol restricts nations based on how wealthy they are, not based on how much greenhouse gas they produce! The United States would have had to adopt economy-strangling restrictions, while China, which will surpass the United States as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases by 2010 at the speed at which an IndyCar passes a hobo pushing a shopping basket, remains exempt from any restrictions. India, the world's third largest producer of greenhouse gases, is also exempt. Even Al Gore says that 30% of global CO2 emissions come from forest burning in the exempt third world nations. That's a pretty big chunk that nobody seems to talk much about. Some interpretations have said that without additional controls on the exempt nations, the Kyoto Protocol would result in eventual increases in the total greenhouse gas output. By these interpretations, the Kyoto Protocol is merely a symbolic political statement and not a useful tool for reducing greenhouse gases. Personally I think it was simply a case of too many cooks and conflicting interests. Blanket proclamations like the Kyoto Protocol are not the way to approach the problem with any workable practicality. In fact, 13 of the 15 European nations who did ratify Kyoto have been unable to comply with its requirements.

Most reasonable people agree that reducing pollution is generally a good goal, and that it should be done wherever the cost/benefit analysis tips the scale. The costs of making changes can be determined with reasonable accuracy by the pencil pushers and the bean counters. Where these equations become foggy is on the benefit side of the scale. Is the only real potential benefit to be gained the opportunity to have a nice pretty smog-free view of the countryside? Or is the potential benefit our very survival in the face of immediate global catastrophe? How much would you pay for one, and how much would you pay for the other? We simply don't know what we can actually buy here, what we'll actually get for our money. Spend a billion dollars to retrofit factories with carbon dioxide recapturing technologies, and how much is that going to help? Exactly what effect will that have on Al Gore's charts and graphs? Nobody has any idea. It's like we're playing a global game of The Price Is Right: We're standing here with a fistful of dollars, we don't know what's behind any of the doors, and everyone in the audience is shouting.

There is a way to find out what we can actually achieve through the reduction of greenhouse gases, and thus know how much of a reduction we need to make, plan a way to pay for it and actually make it happen: Doing more science and learning more about our planet. And we're already doing that. More climatologists are working on the problem than ever before. The risk we face now is getting stuck in the rut of doing nothing until it's too late, waiting for answers that will never fully come.

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What are your thoughts on global warming? Please post your comments on the Skeptoid.com web site and forum, and discuss them on the Skeptalk email discussion list, which you'll find online at Skeptoid.com.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Beerling, D., et. al. "Methane and the CH4–Related Greenhouse Effect Over the Past 400 Million Years." American Journal of Science. 1 Feb. 2009, Volume 309: Pages 97-113.

Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth. Emmaus, USA: Rodale Books, 2006.

Keeling, R., Piper, S., Bollenbacher, A., Walker, S. "Keeling Curve." Scripps CO2 Program. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 5 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Jan. 2010. <http://scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/home/index.php>

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030. Paris: OECD Publishing, 2008. Chapter 12.

Stern, Nicholas. "The Economics of Climate Change." American Economic Review. 1 May 2008, 98:2: 1-37.

UNFCCC. "Kyoto Protocol." Kyoto Protocol. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 11 Dec. 1997. Web. 10 Jan. 2010. <http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Heating Up to Global Warming." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 16 Apr 2007. Web. 7 Oct 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4039>


10 most recent comments | Show all 95 comments

Its amasing that in 2012 we were so dumb that we didnt believe scientific data.

I dont think 2013 will be much better.

Guys,the rich country - poor country fallacy arises here.

Energy is money, the better price you get energy the better basis your economy runs on.

Name the poor countries you wish to think are energy impoverished because richer countries pay more for their base load and we can continue the conversation.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 3, 2013 6:40pm

I thought this was one of the more even handed discussions of GW and AGW that I've heard.

One thing briefly mentioned in this podcast that I'd like to see explored more fully in a follow up is the notion that climate change is necessarily a bad thing environmentally. Brian hand waves the notion that CO2=pollution and that we know that climate change is a negative thing, but I'd like to see a skeptical analysis of the science behind this notion that seems to be taken as a given in any discussion.

JohnFx, Austin, Texas
February 13, 2013 6:45am

@Mud: As always, a voice of intelligence.

The thing that nobody seems to be addressing here is money. And I mean as in green technology cannot be forced on people.

Just a few years ago, even though the idea of GW was huge, and a lot of people thought it was something that we all needed to work on, you still couldn't buy a car that was viable. Gas got expensive, and the cost/benefit ratio of creating the technology got to the point where a lot of people are now able to afford cars that create fewer emissions.

As it becomes financially feasible, things change, and technology becomes available, and affordable. You cannot legislate this. All you can do is destroy either what you're trying to do, or the economy you're trying to work on.

What you can do, is to encourage the development of new technology by helping to make the benefit/cost ratio more equal. But that is basically consumer driven. And it depends on a lot of things.

And,while I would definitely put India on the list of developing nations, I wouldn't put China on it. Partially because China owns us--not that they got a good deal for their purchase of our debt. But also because China is at a stage where they are an economic power. and part of it was built on the death of their people through pollution. Unfortunately, I have no solution for that one.

Sara, Salt Lake City
February 20, 2013 9:41am

"The big question, which is significant because it's one that we probably can do something about, asks how much is human activity to blame for the current trend. Everyone agrees that it's at least partly to blame", not "Everyone" agrees that human activity is at all or even least partly to blame for any alleged climate change, so my question is "is the Sun's distance to the Earth constant or does it fluctuate, because if it is not constant, that might cause "man made climate change" or the is there planetary gravitational shift from all of the pollution?

MutantBuzzard, 90210
March 1, 2013 10:50am

Well, the Earth's distance from the Sun does fluctuate because the Earth's orbit is an ellipse. So we do get 'climate change' for that reason. Or, as it's more commonly known : summer (it's a bit more complicated than that-the Earth's tilt on its axis is probably just as important but whatever).

However, I think that if the planet had spiralled in closer to the Sun in the last few hundred years we would definitely know about it, so I think that it can be ruled about.

I honestly can't see how pollution can affect gravity though. But I'm not a physicist so maybe somebody else knows better.

Darren, Liverpool, UK
April 17, 2013 5:52am

The last sentence of this piece is perfect--a lot of the rest is hot air. Brian is smart enough not to engage in scientific denial, but his bias against environmentalism ends up making him draw some pretty silly conclusions (nuclear power has myriad problems, many of them not environmental--the idea that we'd be relying much more on it if not for the environmental movement is a red herring). Stuart sums up the problem with Brian's Kyoto Protocol argument pretty well. And why keep bringing up Al Gore? Here in Asia, most people accepted the growing scientific consensus on climate change before Gore's movies and books even came out, and still many people have not even heard of him. Gore is irrelevant here--any intelligent person can get a decent grasp on climate change without Gore (Richard sums up some of the basic facts pretty nicely).

Bottom line: It's a huge problem, and yes, while the basic physics of global warming are simple, the mechanics of climate change are too complex to make exact predictions. So what? We need restrictions on C02, obviously those restrictions can't be too drastic, too soon, and we need massive investment in alternative energy, plus tax policies that will give it a competitive edge. Whether we will get those things in time largely depends on politics--the fossil-fuel industry is powerful and clearly cares much more about short-term profits than the future of the human race. The science is clear enough--it's time for action.

Matthew Ward, Osaka, Japan
June 9, 2013 1:59am

Here is where the rubber meets the road for me. I know with scientific theory things need to be revised when new data becomes available. From a non scientist like me that also does not have a political agenda some of the claims global warming proponents make seem to be more pseudo science? For instance I remember during the 80's many reported the next ice age coming. Then in the 90's the big buzz is global warming and now its climate change. I think society and government are using scare tactics to force behavior. They don’t understand the earth’s ecosystem well enough to make many of these claims. The science is that Co2 levels are rising the debate is on how of even if that actually affects the environment. Global warming believers use an all roads point to Rome method everything that happens is based on the belief that everything is caused by climate change. An example of this is the tornados that hit southern US this year I can’t tell you how many reporters directly said this is because of climate change. I looked up data from NOAA and they show the number and intensity of tornadoes over the last 10 years is less than the previous 30years not more. As for industry look at the auto industry they effectively have got us to buy cars that are more profitable for them and more expensive for us to save the environment. My brother in law just bought a new Prius c he pays $200 per month and gets 50mpg he could have bought a Ford Fiesta $140 per month and 40MPG. if his purpose was to save money for the same price as the Prius he could own the Ford and 30,000 miles with or gas at today’s prices every year. I don’t have an answer I am however very skeptical about the motivations of people

brian, Minnesota,USA
August 23, 2013 7:58am

Brian, your personal history has failed you.

On science (which you admit to have heard of once or twice) and global warming.

Your brothers choices and realisation after the purchase only indicates he didnt approach the dollar savings very scientifically (ie do the arithmetic)

You did have the answer for your brother before he bought the vehicle. As normal, you didnt look it up.

Dont worry, the noisiest of us here never look things up. Apparently its the human condition.

Mortal Dilpin, Greenacres by the sea Oz
September 11, 2013 9:44pm

There is no doubt that Global Climate change has been hijacked by politics. In general conversation it isn't even about the science, it is simply used to beat your opponent down as either a hamfisted, tire burning, redneck or a granola eating, barefooted hippy. In any conversation I have had the unfortunate happenstance to get involved in, the discussion quickly degenerates into grade school recess name calling.

I tend to agree with Brian although I think he is a bit more polite on the point. It is the height of hubris for anyone to make sweeping decrees about GW, even climate scientists. And either extreme greed or extreme arrogance to force public policy changes based on that information. We should all be careful of the wolves praying on tax dollars and fools, the ilk of Solyndra who use political malfeasance to secure large tax payer funded grants which are squandered by their greed and stupidity.

Mike, Cottage Grove, MN
October 17, 2013 11:46am

In my country global warming has never really been discussed as a political issue much so I haven't really been exposed to it as a political issue like many of those in the US have. From my perspective (as a chemist) i see the idea of CO2 as a heat trapping gas to be reasonable. After all, the carbon oxygen double bond absorbs very strongly in the infrared region, in other words it is very efficient at converting IR light into vibrational energy (i.e. heat). But, of course, this fact is purely theoretical and in science we need observable proof right?

Well, to anyone who is just waiting for scientific proof I offer the planet Venus as a perfect case study. Its atmosphere is 96.5% CO2 and it is by far the hottest planet in the solar system. Its average surface temperature is 467C (or 972F for those of you who use farenheit), that's hot enough to MELT LEAD! Compare that to 14C (57F) for Earth, which has less than 1% CO2 in its atmosphere. And if you're thinking it must be because Venus is closer to the sun then remember that Mercury (which is twice as close to the sun) has a relatively cold surface temp of only 167C (332F)!

So we have a proposed mechanism, that is the very, very well established fact that CO2 absorbs IR light at a wavelength of roughly 4.2 micrometers and converts that energy to heat. We also have a case study showing a planet with a CO2 atmosphere with an otherwise inexplicably high surface temperature. This is what constitutes a sound scientific theory.

Cian, Dublin, Ireland
November 3, 2013 5:21pm

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