Oh My God, We're All Going to Die

Headline from the Canadian, via Hit and Run:

"Over 4.5 Billion people could die from Global Warming-related causes by 2012"

In case you are struggling with the math, that means that they believe Global Warming could kill three quarters of the world's population in the next five years.  And the media treats these people with total respect, and we skeptics are considered loony?  It appears that the editors of the Canadian have taken NOAA climate research Steven Schneider at his word:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements,
and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what
the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

However, this example is a very good one to again raise the issue of the skeptical middle ground on climate. 

The methane hydrate disaster case in this article may be extreme, but it is consistent in certain ways with the current climate theories of those who advocate various extreme warming scenarios that require massive government intervention (i.e. every climate study that the media chooses to report on).  To oversimplify a bit, their warming models work in two parts:

  1. Man-made CO2 builds up in the atmosphere and acts to absorb more solar energy in the atmosphere than a similar atmospheric gas mix with less CO2 would.  Most climate scientists agree that since CO2 only absorbs selected wavelengths, this a diminishing-return type effect.  In other words, the second 10% increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere has a smaller impact on global temperatures than the first 10%, and so on.  Eventually, this effect becomes "saturated" such that all the wavelengths of sunlight that are going to be absorbed are absorbed, and further increases in CO2 concentration will have no further effect on world temperatures.  No one knows where this saturation point is, but it might be as low as plus 2 degrees C, meaning the most we could raise global temperatures (without effects in part 2 below) is less than 2 degrees (assuming we have already seen some of this rise).  By the way, though I think what I have just said fits the climate scientists' current "consensus,"  nothing in the italics part ever seems to get printed in the media.
  2. As temperatures rise worldwide due to warming from man-made CO2, other things in the climate will change.  Hotter weather may cause more humidity from vaporized water, or more cloud cover, from the same effect.  As posited in the article linked above, some methane hydrates in ice or in the ocean might vaporize due to higher temperatures.  More plants or algae might grow in certain areas, less in others.  All of these secondary effects might in turn further effect the global temperature.  For example, more cloud cover might act to counter-act warming and cool things off.  In turn, vaporizing methane hydrates would put more greenhouse gasses in the air that could accelerate warming.

    Scientists typically call these secondary reactions feedback loops.  Feedbacks that tend to counteract the initial direction of the process (e.g. warming creates clouds which then reduce warming) are called negative feedbacks.  Feedbacks that tend to accelerate the process (warming vaporizes methane which causes more warming) are positive feedbacks.  Negative feedback is a ball at the bottom of a valley that rolls back to its starting point when you nudge it; positive feedback is a ball perched on top of a mountain, where one slight nudge causes it to roll downhill faster and faster.   Most natural processes are negative feedbacks -- otherwise nothing would be stable.  In fact, while positive feedback processes are not unknown in nature, they are rare enough that most non-scientists would be hard-pressed to name one.  The best one I can think of is nuclear fission and fusion, which should give you an idea of what happens when nature gets rolling on a positive feedback loop and why we wouldn't be around if there were many such processes.

    So it is interesting that nearly every climate model that you hear of in the press assumes that the secondary effects from CO2-based warming are almost all positive, rather than negative feedbacks.  Scientists, in a competition to see who can come up with the most dire model, have dreamed up numerous positive feedback effects and have mostly ignored any possible negative feedbacks.  In other words, most climate scientists are currently hypothesizing that the world's climate is different from nearly every other natural process we know of and is one of the very very few runaway positive feedback processes in nature.

I want to offer up a couple of observations based on this state of affairs:

  • Climate science is very hard and very chaotic, so there is nothing we really know with certainty.  However, we have a far, far, far better understanding of #1 above than #2.  In fact, models based just on effect #1 (without any feedbacks) do a decent job of explaining history (though they still overestimate actual warming some).  However, models based on adding the positive feedback processes in #2 fail miserably at modeling history.  (Several scientists have claimed to have "fixed" this by incorporating fudge factors, a practice many model-based financial market speculators have been bankrupted by).  We have no real evidence yet to support any of the positive feedbacks, or even to support the hypothesis that the feedback is in fact positive rather than negative.  I had a professor once who liked to make the lame joke that it was a bad "sign" if you did not even know if an effect was positive or negative.
  • Because global warming advocates are much more comfortable arguing #1 than #2, they like to paint skeptics as all denying #1.  This makes for a great straw man that is easy to beat, and is aided by the fact that there is a true minority who doesn't believe #1  (and who, despite everything that is written, have every right to continue to express that opinion without fear of reprisal).  Actually, even better, they like to avoid defending their position at all and just argue that all skeptics are funded by Exxon.
  • However, it is step #2 that is the key, and that we should be arguing about.  Though the most extreme enviro-socialists just want to shut down growth and take over the world economy at any cost, most folks recognize that slowing warming with current technology represents a real trade-off between economic growth and CO2 output.  And, most people recognize that reducing economic growth might be survivable in the rich countries like the US, but for countries like India and China, which are just starting to develop, slowing growth means locking hundreds of millions into poverty they finally have a chance to escape.

    I am going to simplify this, but I think the following statement is pretty close:  The warming from #1 alone (CO2 without positive feedbacks) will not be enough to justify the really harsh actions that would slow CO2 output enough to have any effect at all;  only with substantial positive feedbacks from #2, such that the warming from CO2 alone is tripled, quadrupled or more (e.g. 8 degrees rather than 2) are warming forecasts dire enough to warrant substantial activity today.

So that is why I am a skeptic.  I believe #1, though I know there are also things other than manmade CO2 causing some of the current warming (e.g. the sun's output is higher today than it has been in centuries).  I do not think anyone has completed any really convincing work on #2, and Occam's razor tends to make me suspicious of hypothesizing positive feedback loops without evidence (since they are so much more rare than negative ones).

More on the skeptical middle ground hereDiscussion of things like the "hockey stick" is here.  For a small insight into how global warming advocates are knowingly exaggerating their case, see the footnote to this post.

Update:  Increasingly, folks seem to want to equate "skeptic" with "denier."  If so, I will have to change my terminology.  However, that would be sad, as "skeptic" is a pretty good word.  I accept there is some CO2 caused warming, but I am skeptical that the warming and its effects are as bad as folks like Al Gore make it out to be, and I am skeptical that the costs of an immediate lock-down on CO2 production will outweigh the benefits.  That is why I call myself a skeptic.  If that is now a bad term, someone needs to suggest a new one.

  • markm

    "Eventually, this effect becomes "saturated" such that all the wavelengths of sunlight that are going to be absorbed are absorbed, and further increases in CO2 concentration will have no further effect on world temperatures. No one knows where this saturation point is"

    I find that very doubtful. The absorption effects of a given amount of CO2 are readily measured in the laboratory. Atmospheric scientists know how to calculate the amount of C02 in a column of air given a concentration. (That's the part I couldn't do with accuracy - but if the experts in it can't do that, they know very little about their field.) Put the two together and the saturation concentration should be obvious.

    If no one is publishing that, I wonder why? Is it because we're so far from saturation that it's irrelevant, or is it that looking at saturation leads to politically-incorrect answers?

  • Rob

    This sounds like part of a more global conspiracy (the one where some secret organization controls the masses indirectly through gov't using fear of the unknown)

    I haven't heard the positive/negative feedback explained in the context of global warming. The fact that climate has a negative feedback loop allows it to remain at the bottom of a two sided slope. Sometimes it rolls up one side (warming) or the other (cooler). So, here is where we start a new conspiracy:

    1. Scientists would have us believe that this ball will keep rolling indefinitely up one side of slope (the warm one, I guess because humans are causing a positive feedback loop)
    2. We are somehow able to reverse this trend with equally opposite force, as to avoid the ball rolling down to the center and back up the cold side...

    These facts just don't fit... if humans are destroying the climate by warming it in a positive feedback loop, how do we know we won't destroy the climate by using another positive feedback loop in the other direction?

  • Bob

    Three quarters of humanity dies, significantly reducing man's overall contribution to warming which causes the ball to roll "down slope"; negative feedback.

    Of course, I am sure the alarmists would claim that only the poorest of the poor would be impacted, and the industrialized nations would continue polluting as before.

  • Anon E. Mouse

    We *know* climate is a negative feedback system for CO2. Proof by example.
    The earth has had higher CO2 levels than today in the past, and yet here we are today. If there was a positive feedback mechanism, it would’ve kicked in and Earth would be Venus-like (really hot).

    We *know* climate is a negative feedback system for nearly any conceivable input: killer meteorite impacts, what have you -- everything that has happened since before the dinosaurs, yet here we are today.

  • http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog M1EK

    Anon,

    You're either disingenuous or a moron. The processes which EVENTUALLY brought the Earth back to rough equilibrium occurred on the order of thousands of even millions of years. In the meantime, many many many species went extinct. The Earth went on. Those species didn't.

    Likewise, if we push the Earth into a positive feedback loop, the Earth may EVENTUALLY recover to something like today's climate, but it might be thousands or millions of years from now. The intervening time will not be a good time to be alive as a human being; at least, not as one of six billion of them.

  • http://shrimplate.blogspot.com/ shrimplate

    (snip)"Though the most extreme enviro-socialists just want to shut down growth and take over the world economy at any cost, most folks recognize that slowing warming with current technology represents a real trade-off between economic growth and CO2 output."

    I don't know any extreme enviro-socialists, (whatever they might be) who want to shut down growth, and it seems to me that international corporations are already filling the niche for taking over the world economy. But I do know that carbon-based fossil fuels are a finite resource, and we are likely at about peak production right now.

    We have extracted and burned about half of all the petroleum ever on the planet, and that was the half of reserves that was easiest and cheapest to extract and refine. See Hubbert and Deffeyes.

    What we enviromentalists really fear is the short-term (as opposed to the eons of earth-time) climate difficulties just as economic growth becomes stunted by rising fuel prices. And we will have burdened ourselves with suburban build-out that is unsustainable and will not work in a time of fuel scarcity.

    One more thing: technology is not fuel.

  • Anonymous

    you entire post basically hides from the buildup of methane, more than 20 times as strong as CO2 as a GHG (you mention it as an aside). the increase in temps due to methane release (part of the positive feedback cycle) will match, or even exceed that caused by anthropegenic CO2 increases. if the ocean temps rise by about 3-4 C in some areas (from current temps), methane hydrates will be released. look them up. if that happens, 4.5 billion will be an underestimate. the last time something on that scale happened, only bacteria survived.

    maybe you are a bit paranoid if you think all these scienctists from 100+ countries are our to stiffle economic growth around the world and hurt your business. many of them are stockholders, 401k investors and such. many of them, such as myself, have a small business on the side.

    what most people don't realize is that climate change will very likely be bad for business. Look at the south and midwest for example, serious drought...and higher average temps. this creates stress on major crops like corn and allows invasive species or bugs to move in, upsetting the balance. look at the corn production in the US the last few years, and the prices lately. a lot of people think ethanol will save us from our oil addiction. it won't even come close at the rate changes are happening. and this is just one TINY aspect of the changing environment we are creating. rising temps should be better for some areas, but that neglects the effects of invasive that can move in to warmer areas, and unstable climate (droughts and floods).

    you also mention negative feedback loops. they work very well to keep the climate in a sort of equilibrium. however, at the rate we are changing temps, these negative feedback loops will not have time to kick in for the most part. water vapor will, but others sinks will not. most living things can not adapt at the increase rates we are now currently experienceing.

    "We *know* climate is a negative feedback system for CO2. Proof by example."

    so now you are quoting Patterson where he states that the earth was colder than now with higher CO2. that's true, but it was 400 MILLION years ago and does not "prove" anything except that you are willing to believe someone who willingly misleads people like yourself. the sun was different then and it didn't radiate the same heat. the rocky mountains weren't present, ocean currents and even the continenets were different. besides, no one is predicting what the temps will be like in another 400 million years. we are talking the next few hundred. if you go back 400,000 years, CO2 and temp match perfectly, as they do now. you keep believing the few misleaders out there though with their "proof".

    "enviro-socialist". nice, name calling...is this a high school blog?