November 15, 2008
Long Term Cooling Coming For Earth?

Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reports on a new paper that argues from a climate model that the Earth's climate will shift toward a colder world.

A new analysis of the dramatic cycles of ice ages and warm intervals over the past million years, published in Nature, concludes that the climatic swings are the gyrations of a system poised to settle into a quasi-permanent colder state — with expanded ice sheets at both poles.

In essence, says one of the two authors, Thomas J. Crowley of the University of Edinburgh, the ice age cycles over the past million years are a super-slow-motion variant of the dramatic jostlings recorded by a seismograph in an earthquake before the ground settles into a new quiet state. He and William T. Hyde of the University of Toronto used climate models and other techniques to assess the chances that the world is witnessing the final stages of a 50-million-year transition from a planet with a persistent warm climate and scant polar ice to one with greatly expanded ice sheets at both poles.

This isn't expected to happen in the next 100 years. At this point the result probably doesn't have any policy implications. But for those of us who live long enough to receive rejuvenation therapies if the robots or nanobots do not wipe us out at some point we'll need to argue about whether to engineer the climate to prevent another ice age.

Revkin posted a series of responses to this paper. Here's part of a response from NASA climate scientist James Hansen arguing that humans could easily prevent a deeper freezing by producing chloro flouro carbons. I agree. But CFCs are a bad choice due to their effects on the ozone hole.

Another ice age cannot occur unless humans go extinct. It would take only one CFC factory to avert any natural cooling tendency. Our problem is the opposite: we cannot seem to find a way to keep our GHG forcing at a level that assures a climate resembling that of the past 10,000 years.

Introduction of greenhouse gases isn't the only way to prevent a new ice age. We also could make all our buildings black on the outside and our roads too. That'd make the planet absorb more light.

This model does not prove the future. Carl Wunsch of MIT complains this model isn't science because the model is too simple and unproven.

Surely this isn’t science in any conventional sense. Taking a toy model and using it to make a “prediction” about something nearly a million years in the future, is a form of science fiction—maybe interesting in the same way a novel is, but it isn’t science. The prediction itself is untestable—except a million years from now, and the model “tests” that quoted are carefully chosen to be those things that the model has been tuned to get “right,” with no mention of the huge number of things it gets wrong. How many times do “if”, and “may” get used in the paper?

While this is simpler than the average climate model all climate models are simple (at least compared to the system they attempt to model) and unproven. A planetary scientist of my acquaintance tells me that all climate models have large errors in them and aren't really science because they can't predict. But they are the best available and we need to make decisions based on incomplete understanding.

Update: Lest anyone miss the point: The reason this model has no present day policy implications is that the time line for this projected cooling is not in this century. Whereas models that project global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions do project warming in this century. I do not know whether the latter models are correct. I'm told they have large sources of error in them. But they might be correct. We deal with large uncertainties with regard climate. We need to make decisions based on incomplete and partially erroneous information.

Once we have rejuvenation therapies some of us might some day need to consider policy changes in response to some future more refined model that will project cooling changes at some point some of us might just live to see.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 November 15 11:02 PM  Climate Trends

simon said at November 16, 2008 7:50 AM:

The authors are consistent with other geological models that suggest we will see more material cooling in the future of the planet. The charge that it is not science is ridiculous given that almost all of the current global warming models can be attacked with the complaint (simple is not one of them).

As for your assertion that the model has no policy implications is incorrect. If we expect to see material cooling, then any policy assertions that are attempting to address warming are immediately suspect. Further, it clearly shows the precautionary principle used by alarmists is specious. The principle as used by alarmists assumes one potential outcome, warming. Now we see a real possibility of cooling. This indicates that the precautionary principle as a policy tool is invalid as currently operationalized (I would more generally suggest that it is muddled thinking devoid of leveraging the decision sciences).

odograph said at November 16, 2008 10:38 AM:

What a strange piece, unless it is in jest ... to assume rejuvenation and reject AGW seems to be somewhat picking and choosing one's futures. Certainly there is far more scientific consensus on the warming than the likelihood of significant life extension at this point. (The National Academy of Sciences has a position I think, on one, but not the other.)

On the cooling ... sure new ideas are always fun, and it's fun to play with the possibilities ... but science doesn't run on "a" paper. It runs on decades of papers making successive approximations on the truth. A particular paper may be the start of a trend or a flier ... we need time to tell.

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2008 10:46 AM:


I didn't reject AGW. I make my peace with uncertainties and keep in mind that a thing can be true but not yet proven. A lot of people have problems with the middle of doubt. They need to be on one side or the other with that feeling certainty. I don't.

Assume rejuvenation: This seems far easier to predict. Our ability to manipulate matter will only increase for decades to come. The sorts of manipulations needed for rejuvenation all seem physically possible.

odograph said at November 16, 2008 11:37 AM:

Sorry to be touchy, but there still seems a business of shifting the scientific consensus to lay uncertainty.

On the other, you saw this version of The Singlarity is Far make the rounds?

simon said at November 16, 2008 12:39 PM:


Numerous scientists agree that the "long term" trend is cooling (geological time). The paper noted is merely building on this view.

Derek said at November 16, 2008 12:57 PM:

AGW seems to be a poor theory.
Good theories have to do 3 things:
1. Explain the past/Make Verifiable predictions about the past.
2. Explain the present.
3. Make predictions that we can verify.

AGW failes in all 3 cases.
1. AGW can't explain the midevil warming period so it ignores it. It's smacks more of religion when you ignore data instead trying to work it into your theory.

2. World Temperature has not changed in the last 10 years. It's gone down this year. AGW has no mechanism to explain this.

3. The predictions AGW are so all over the place that even if small warming happens the supporters of it will claim it verifies their claims. Predicting such a huge range of results prevents us from verify if the AGW theory hold true. Saying that it's going to get warmer but you can't say by how much is about good as a fortune teller that you will have a something wonderful happen in your future. The theory can't explain anything.

Now it's true that any new theory goes through periods where all these cases are true. Normally people spend years working on resolving these issues and adjusting the theory to match the real world. 20 later and AGW even farther away from satisfying these conditions. It becomes more and more complex and less and less testable. It's not science, it's junk science.

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2008 1:04 PM:


AGW: It might happen. I have a hard time believing we can change atmospheric CO2 so much without a temperature change. But I've also listened to the rant of a JPL scientist telling me that the models have huge sources of error and that models with such large sources of error are not science. Again, he's not saying that warming won't happen as a result of CO2. He's saying that the models are unverified, don't model all relevant phenomena, and have errors. So they aren't predictive.

Singularity and David Friedman and William Saletan: I do not know when the singularity is coming. But I watch a lot of areas of research that feed in to the development of rejuvenation therapies and I think in 30 years we'll have replacement organs, immunotherapies that remove junk, stem cells that repair joints and hearts, and excellent anti-cancer treatments. Look at the rate of decline in cost of DNA sequencing tech. The cost has dropped orders of magnitude since 2000 and will probably drop orders of magnitude more in the next 5 years.

Saletan and the limits of drugs due to side effects: Yes, of course. He's erroneously pessimistic about future therapies because he doesn't understand the big picture. Chemical compounds are too simple as tools to transform our bodies. Whatever fixes us must contain much more information content. Gene therapies and cell therapies (and replacement organs are just scaled up cell therapies) and nanobots will do most of the transformation.

I think the most impressive thing going on is the scaling up of biotechnologies to handle really complex biological systems. Measure the activity of thousands of genes at once or thousands of proteins at once. Massively parallel sequencing. Computational biology to model cells and organs and organisms. Massively parallel manipulation and screening lab technologies. This is all becoming really cheap because it is getting really small.

BTW, David Friedman reads me and told me he used my site to find material for his book Future Imperfect.

odograph said at November 17, 2008 4:26 AM:

"AGW failes in all 3 cases."

What, because you operate on a human timescale you should neglect all longer problems?

As many have observed, we (or our children) can easily verify AGW predictions, but the catch-22 is that once observed, it is too late to do anything about them. In short, spare me ...

"But I've also listened to the rant of a JPL scientist ..."

That better than a summary by the National Academy of Sciences, I always say.

(You know, you might think that blog comments are a way to discover the world, but beware their ability to hide from it. Two sides of the coin.)

odograph said at November 17, 2008 5:19 AM:

BTW, I like Barry Ritholtz for his investment blogging, but he sort of applies his numeracy to AGW now and then. Today's piece:

Global Warming? What Evidence Do You Have?

To look at it on a meta-level, read the comments later today and see how many counter arguments are simply irrational or anti-intellectual.

zylonet said at November 17, 2008 6:11 AM:

"As many have observed, we (or our children) can easily verify AGW predictions, but the catch-22 is that once observed, it is too late to do anything about them. In short, spare me .."

Odograph, to what other potential problems do you suggest we begin immediate remediation? Surely, there are many problems to solve. How about starting with all things HBD? If we are fixing things for future generations, then how do you propose we service the present generation?

odograh said at November 17, 2008 6:20 AM:

Well zylonet, the interesting conversations begin once the general, even fuzzy, acceptance of AGW is made. After that we can talk about the impacts on us and our children. I think there the "hard as nails" way to represent it is "loss of environmental services."

We still use rainforest and ocean products. We have not (yet?) thinned biodiversity down to a "garden earth."

I personally see a danger in that migration anyway, as we thin the number of species on the planet we reduce our fault tolerance etc. With *any* life it will all come back eventually of course. We have had major extinction events before. (Well, I say we though we as a species weren't around.)

So it comes down to how much of a degraded earth do we want to leave? The north atlantic cod fishery is gone ... if AGW helped wipe out the pacific salmon fishery would that be OK? It's a bit of a personal decision about what kind of world we enjoy and what kind of a world we want to leave. We can apply similar logic to other problems ... obviously the "oceans" problem is more complex than just climate or just overfishing.


Dyspepsis said at November 18, 2008 7:32 AM:

For those who believe that man is the source of all climate change, it is worth noting that for about 90% of the last three-quarters of a million years, most of Canada and large chunks of the northern US was covered by ice. Ice up to a kilometre thick. The inter-glacial periods averaged about 10,000 to 11,000 years.
Interesting facts:
CO2 levels varied throughout that 750,000 years, without apparent forward correlation to ice advance but some trailing correlation:
The last ice advance retreated about 12,000 years ago. (Just to be clear here: Toronto was under ice about 12,000 years ago):
and, the sun has just gone through a possibly unique sun spot cycle change involving an unprecendented period without sunspots.
Hypothesis: we will see cooling not warming.

momochan said at November 18, 2008 1:41 PM:

The paper can be interpreted to accentuate the "A" in "AGW". According to Milankovitch cycles, etc., we should be slowly cooling off. The fact that we are not cooling off -- and indeed appear to be warming -- supports the position that said warming is artificial rather than natural.
Staving off the next ice age is not a bad thing, but way overshooting a maintenance of Holocene mildness could very well be a bad thing.

odograph said at November 18, 2008 6:13 PM:

"For those who believe that man is the source of all climate change ..."

Hint: starting with such an extreme strawman might discourage your reader from venturing further.

Randall Parker said at November 18, 2008 7:02 PM:


I do not buy this assertion:

As many have observed, we (or our children) can easily verify AGW predictions, but the catch-22 is that once observed, it is too late to do anything about them. In short, spare me ...

See my category archive: Engineering Climate.

The biggest argument I can see for lowering CO2 emissions is that higher CO2 concentrations will partially dissolve into the oceans and increase acidity. I do not see how to prevent that. But we have plenty of means at our disposal for lowering global temperatures. Some of them are pretty easy. The easiest one is to paint all buildings white and develop lighter color road surfacings.

Ken said at November 22, 2008 9:49 PM:

Randall, I think you do favour criticism of climate science more than such criticisms merit and hold more strongly to doubts of the current scientific understanding of climate, much more doubt than the science merits. I don't know about your JPL scientist friend, but climate models do show a consistency of results, including with hindcasting, that appears to contradict the assertion that they are inherently prone to produce wide ranging uncertainty. If they are so unreliable why do tbey work as well as they demonstrably do? I would note that some people with PhDs have expressed similar doubts, like Pat Franks. Franks showed that what he thought climate models did would result in runaway uncertainties - but the problem was that how GCM's work and how Franks thought they worked were completely different. That's not good science. Are you sure that's not the case again?

Science supporting AGW is abundant and not dependent on models for it's fundamentals, yet GCM's have been pretty impressive for what they've got right. Perfect? No. But it's a work in progress and a very impressive one. Meanwhile your scientist friend needs to publish, not rant. I doubt he (I'm presuming he) would be impressed by complete outsiders to his specialty telling him the fundamentals of what he does is wrong and he and all his collegues have overlooked the obvious but, hey, maybe he would be happy to have multiple blogs, by people who have very little idea what he even does, devoted to telling him he's wrong, claiming he and his collegues are deliberately misinterpreting and exaggerating evidence of something that will change the world as we know it - in order to support an underlying political agenda. Somehow I doubt it. Tell him to publish in peer reviewed science journals, not rant in private to a blogger.

Given the world changing scale of climate change's consequences, "I don't know" isn't good enough any more. It's definitely not good enough to support a policy of ongoing inaction - which is a clear policy decision with serious consequences, that is in direct contradiction of what climate science is telling us. Only by holding to the unfounded belief that what people do won't change the climate can "I'm not convinced" be grounds for ongoing inaction. It's only the outliers of climate science are insisting we don't know enough. I don't want future policy based on the positions held by the losers of the AGW science debates.

Randall Parker said at November 23, 2008 8:15 AM:


I tried to get my friend at JPL to let me quote him. He says the debate is so politicized that he doesn't want to get involved. He'd rather publish papers about other planets. That says a lot. He's extremely sharp.

Inaction: I do not actually advocate that. I advocate some steps that amount to insurance. We should do more research on climate engineering. We should also restrict green house gases that are pretty cheap to restrict for cost. Methane emissions seem most cost effective to restrict. We should also consider painting a lot of rooftops white in order to increase light reflection. That could buy us a decade.

We should also accelerate the development of non-fossil fuels energy sources. By lowering their cost we will cause them to displace fossil fuels. We need those technologies anyway since we are pretty close to the world peak in oil production. That oil peak is going to inflict far larger costs in the next 20 years than warming.

If human-caused warming is real then once the signal becomes unmistakable we can cool the planet by changing albedo and by other measures I've already reported on in my Engineering Climate category archive. We can also suck CO2 out of the atmosphere by a variety of measures.

If we do this in the future we can do this with better technology, lower costs, and a more certain knowledge of the necessity of the intervention.

Ken said at November 23, 2008 1:05 PM:

Given the planet changing seriousness of climate change, it's bound to be politicised. That's not a good enough reason to fail to contribute to the science - on the contrary it sounds like the best of reasons. Climate scientists face that politicisation constantly, with a whole industry devoted to convincing the public they're unprofessional, biased, incompetent and in the thrall of loopy leftists. It can't be a joy for them. If a scientist has something real to contribute, do so or else let their fellow professionals get on with it.

That you persist in belief that the signal is not already unmistakable is contrary to what the world's top institutions that study climate are telling us. Believing the outliers but not the main body of climate science says to me your "scepticism" isn't applied evenly.

I appreciate that you are a consistent voice for the development and deployment of better technologies, but I have to say I'm doubtful climate engineering will be easier or simpler or cheaper than consistent policies aimed at reducing the problem at the source. And surely successful climate engineering depends on a science based understanding of climate and modelling the effects, which you continue to cast doubt upon. I wouldn't like to see climate engineering based on anything less than the best of mainstream climate science. I especially don't want to see the belief that there is an easy fix become one more argument to delay the shift to clean energy.

Randall Parker said at November 23, 2008 2:04 PM:


The signal for global warming is clear? No warming for the last 7 years. That doesn't fit IPCC models! The fact that it doesn't fit IPCC models is important!

A recent report on a model predicts no warming in the next 15 years or so.

Now, maybe natural forcers are counteracting the human CO2 contribution and we'd have experienced a cooling in the last 7 years. I do not know. There's a distinct possibility. If that is the case when when (or if) natural forcers shift in a different direction we could get a lot of heating really fast.

Regards "the world's top institutions" and "believing outliers": I believed the outliers in the last 7 years about financial developments. The outliers were correct. Before the Iraq war an outlier (physicist and evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran) tried to tell me the consensus about Iraq was wrong. I rejected his argument basically because so many experts must be right. I read the Congressional testimony of former UN weapons scientists and other supposed experts. Yet now I know that Greg was right down to details.

BTW, before the Iraq war none of Greg's weapons developer friends at Los Alamos believed the mainstream pronouncements. But nobody was asking them their opinions. I wonder who else isn't being listened to.

The best mainstream climate science: I know biological science way way better. I know in biological science the size of the unknowns and just how many things we can't hazard predictions about even when we want to.

Climate engineering: Again, I come down to best minds. Greg Bear thinks it would be cheap and easy to do. Another Ph.D. scientist tells me that Bear is an incredibly sharp guy.

Look, CO2 is a warming gas. We are releasing a lot of it into the atmosphere. I am concerned. I think it very reasonable for climate scientists to be concerned. But I also think when these concerns get translated into the political realm they get translated from possibilities and probabilities into certainties. That is a mistake.

Ken said at November 26, 2008 2:51 PM:

Randall, I'd have thought you understood that climate change is about the overall imbalance between energy arriving and energy leaving and that surface air temperatures aren't a good measure of that except in terms of long term averages - and most climatologists favour 30 years to reveal underlying trends just because lesser periods show rises and dips. A dip in SAT's doesn't mean the overall energy balance went from warming to cooling - a whole lot more energy has entered and keeps entering the climate system and it will show itself in SATs eventually. The dips turn to rises and this dip is no greater than previous ones that have subsequently been overtaken by record warming. Using 30 year averages, the warming signal is clear. And there's ice loss, sea level rise, phenological shifts. The signal is clear. The Kiel group's work is tying the recent "cooling" in SAT's to Atlantic Decadal Oscillation, which gives a strong reason for believing this "cooling" is not a weakening of GHG forcings. So this dip has a big AMO component and the big 40's to 60's dip did too if this study is correct. How can this be evidence climate science is overestimating the impacts of GHG's? It sure isn't evidence for Whitehouse's pet theory that climate change is dominated by solar changes.

Whitehouse's op-piece was puff and fluff, unworthy of someone with a PhD discussing an issue of world changing significance. I thought so at the time and don't see any reason to think differently now. I'm surprised that you gave it credence. As for the predictions of "cooling" you link to, quoting from the lead scientist involved - "We have to take into account that there are uncertainties in our model; but it does suggest a plateauing of temperatures, and then a continued rise," said Dr Keenlyside. And "In the long term, radiative forcing (the Earth's energy balance) dominates..." Or the Nature reviewer and Hadley Centre's Richard Wood's views ... "As with the unusually cold weather seen recently in much of the northern hemisphere - linked to La Nina conditions - he emphasises that even if the Kiel model proves correct, it is not an indication that the longer-term climate projections of the IPCC and many other institutions are wrong." This is hardly evidence that climate science is significantly wrong. On the contrary, it's clear evidence of the ongoing effort to tease out what's natural from what's anthropogenic and refine understanding of climate.

A Consensus can be overturned but it just isn't happening with climate science, and there's been plenty of time now to uncover fundamental flaws. It hasn't happened. There aren't major competing schools of thought as exist in other areas of study. There is a remarkable level of agreement and despite attempts to construe this as some kind of bias, it is clear indication that the fundamentals are almost certaintly correct. I think it's past time to take what mainstream climate science is telling us seriously and treat their projections of consequences as the most probable outcomes. I find your ongoing willingness to believe that those outcomes will be significantly less world changing than the science tells us quite alarming. It's just as "possible" that the outcomes are being seriously underestimated.

As for Benford or Bear - I quite like a lot of their novels. I intend reading the rest of those galactic centre stories of Benford's one day but I distrust SF writers as predicters of anything. I suspect a prejudice in favour of solutions that put people in space, and a lack of appreciation for how utterly dependent humanity is on ever more stressed natural systems. And I think they tend to be over-optimistic about humanity thriving in the absence of those natural systems . And Climate engineering, applied by those who assume mainstream climate science is significantly wrong, sounds very alarming indeed.

Randall Parker said at November 26, 2008 3:39 PM:


Yes, of course the surface temps only tell part of the story. Ocean and upper atmosphere heat matter too. I do not know why you think that I might not know that.

When I said Greg Bear above I meant to say Gregory Benford. That's who I quote at the link. He's a physics prof at UC Irvine, not just an SF writer.

I just asked another very smart Ph.D. physicist what he thought of the global warming debate. He says he'd need to study it for a year to be able to hazard an informed opinion about it. He also says that my JPL acquaintance is probably right about the limitations of the models.

We are stuck in the position where human-driven warming might really be happening but the system is too complex to model. The actual temperature record is more convincing than the models in my view. The fact that we know that CO2 reduces heat loss by itself is what we can be sure of.

Op-ed fluff: The bulk of what gets written on either side of this debate falls into the category of popular science and not rigorous presentation of the underlying arguments. I doubt that you call the op-eds that agree with you "fluff". Your own argument above isn't written at the level of a journal article either.

Yes, I understand that Dr Keenlyside expects long term warming.

At this point we have the known effects of CO2. All else equal we therefore should expect warming. I get that. But what I object to is the notion this is proven. It isn't. Why? There is this "all else equal" problem.

I think we should do some cheaper things to buy us a decade or two of delayed warming in order to figure it out. I'm leaning toward buying ourselves 11 years with white rooftops for example. White roads would buy us even more time. We can also cut back on methane emissions fairly cheaply and buy ourselves several years that way.

Since we can do other things pretty cheaply to delay warming by about 20 years (assuming it is going to happen of course) my biggest concern on CO2 concentrations is with the oceans. I keep bringing this up periodically. Maybe it is reason enough to cut back on CO2 emissions. I'm not sure.

Randall Parker said at November 27, 2008 11:30 AM:


Looks to me that the biggest problem from warming will be melting of glaciers and a resulting rise in sea levels. Well, for that surface temperatures matter most. We are probably talking surface temperatures mostly above sea levels. But definitely surface temperatures.

What I'd like to know: Can we target glacier surface temperatures to make them cooler relative to the rest of the world. Could we, for example, increase reflectivity of areas surrounding glaciers?

Ken said at November 27, 2008 3:25 PM:

Randall, I suppose I doubted you appreciate the limitations in SATs because of your link to Whitehouse's op-piece; it reflects badly on you when you point to rubbish like that as if it had something important to say. If I can see the abundant flaws, inexpert as I am, how must a true expert view it? You can read the comments I made at the time.

So, how proven does it have to be to be a basis for action? The absorption and radiation properties of atmospheric gases is proven. The changes in concentration of those gases is proven. The attribution of the changes in concentrations to human causes is proven. Specific climatic consequences may not be proven but there's excellent cause to believe that there will be, must be, consequences and a scientific understanding of climate can and do reveal a lot about those consequences. Climate models play an important part in that. They aren't proof of course and your distrust in them is not supported by the reality of their passes in testing with hindcasting and their consistency of results that contradict the assertion that they produce wide ranging uncertainty. Pielke's arguments start with that untrue assertion, completely ignoring the simple fact that they demonstrably can and do work surprisingly well. I found his logic about as uncompelling as Zeno's about that tortoise that Achilles overtook way back and not a sound basis for believing we can't have a good idea of what's in store.

Modelling is here to stay and it will get ever better as better understanding of underlying processes gets incorporated into them - it's clear that the alternatives, like linear projections based on various measured trends are woefully inadequate and do produce the blowouts of uncertainty you appear to believe GCMs must show (but don't). Climate scientist have been charged with the task of prediction of consequences of ongoing emissions and land use changes and they're doing that far better than anyone could have expected.

Decisions have always had to be made in the absence of certainty but there are still likelihoods and probabilities. I think the likelihood of mainstream climate science being significantly wrong is getting too small to continue to justify policies of delay and inaction . A decade ago "wait until we know more" may have been legitimate but we've had that decade of ongoing efforts to know more and AGW is on a firmer footing than ever, a decade during which most nations, my own included, carried on with policies that add more GHG's enissions and tie us to making more well into the future. I even suspect my own gov't of deliberately fast-tracking the opening of new coal mines in order to get them started before any restrictive policies are introduced. This gives me no reason to believe that the consequences will be at the low end of IPCC's conservative projections which depend on vigorous efforts to curb emissions.

Randall, I think that climate change will be a major catastrophe, if a slow developing catastrophe, because of the inadequacy in responding to the challenges it presents. There are tipping points, past which the climate will change in ways that aren't amenable to reversal, and yes, with consequences that may not be fully predictable but there's not much real policy being applied to ensure we don't pass them. I have a very slim hope that low cost solar will hit the market in a big enough way to cause coal power to be largely abandoned in it's favour. Better, wider grids, thermal and compressed air storage, better batteries, efficiency improvements are all happening - at tortoise pace - but even now most gov't policies favour building more coal plants, not less, more coal mines, not less and a global recession is probably going to make it harder, not easier, to fund new energy infrastructure and shift from reliance on coal.

Randall Parker said at November 27, 2008 4:14 PM:

Ken, You state:

So, how proven does it have to be to be a basis for action? The absorption and radiation properties of atmospheric gases is proven. The changes in concentration of those gases is proven. The attribution of the changes in concentrations to human causes is proven.

Your first two statements are proven. The third statement is not proven. I grant that it is highly likely. But not proven.

My distrust of climate models: I asked two very smart people (one a genius Ph.D. in physics) about the models. They say the same thing: The models have large sources of error. The systems being modeled are far more complex than the models. We'd need orders of magnitude more computational power and a lot more knowledge and logic to bring the models up to the level of complexity needed. Even then the models would have big problems. They have inputs that are not knowable in advance (e.g. solar output, volcanic eruptions). They have non-linearities.

This is why a planetary scientist tells me the models aren't science. They ultimately do not predict. They are helpful tools. But you have to accept that they have limitations.

Our problem is that we can't know in advance. Yet we are injecting a big change into the atmosphere. We can't be indifferent but we also shouldn't be as certain as you assert we can be. This ultimately is my problem with the most fanatical statements about AGW.

Irreversible tipping points: Warming by itself is reversible. We could bring on a new ice age in 10 years if we set our minds to it. We could do it pretty cheaply too.

What worries me: ocean acidification and clathrate methane release. We can prevent the latter by cooling the planet. The former seems more problematic.

Ken said at November 28, 2008 2:08 PM:

Randall you say you agree CO2 increase is complicit in warming, that the extra CO2 with the isotopic signature of long buried carbon is very likey anthropogenic (very likely even something to do with all those smoke stacks and exhaust pipes?), our emissions are rising and, short term economics not withstanding, will continue to accelerate ...but we shouldn't consider warming as the most likely of consequences because climate modelling isn't provable? We shouldn't commit to substantial action until it is proven to your satisfaction? I usually avoid analogies but one springs to mind - a mechanic telling me my car's oil is contaminated and will ruin the engine and me deciding I won't change it because he can't tell me if it's going to take out the crankshaft bearings before the pistons seize and it's impossible to predict the future accurately anyway. Besides someone told me there's this stuff you can put in the oil that will stop the overheating that leads to pistons seizing and he's a very sharp guy even if he's not a mechanic. I'll wait and see and maybe put some of that stuff in if the contamination gets worse. I'm still a bit worried about the bearings but, hey, even if the engine breaks down it's not the end of the world. Or even the only world.
Sorry, I don't think your seat on the fence is defensible - to me it looks like under the guise healthy scepticism you favour the belief that climate science is seriously flawed and, indicated by the Whitehouse, Pielke and other links, biased toward exaggerating the impacts of climate change. Odograph probably called it right when he said you reject AGW.

Randall Parker said at November 28, 2008 6:40 PM:


I misread your previous comment. Writing my response in a hurry I thought your third statement was "changes in temperatures", not "changes in concentrations". Of course we know we have changed concentrations of CO2.

We know we are changing CO2 in the atmosphere. We know that all else equal this should cause warming. But, again, we also know that all else is not equal. Your analogy is not appropriate:

We shouldn't commit to substantial action until it is proven to your satisfaction? I usually avoid analogies but one springs to mind - a mechanic telling me my car's oil is contaminated and will ruin the engine and me deciding I won't change it because he can't tell me if it's going to take out the crankshaft bearings before the pistons seize and it's impossible to predict the future accurately anyway.

We know that there is not some feedback force in oil that will cancel out the effect of sand in oil. The physics of oil is a lot simpler and better understood than the physics of an entire atmosphere and oceans and the sun. We also know that with climate there are all sorts of loopbacks and nonlinearities.

Now you blatantly misrepresent me because I refuse to agree with you:

Sorry, I don't think your seat on the fence is defensible - to me it looks like under the guise healthy scepticism you favour the belief that climate science is seriously flawed and, indicated by the Whitehouse, Pielke and other links, biased toward exaggerating the impacts of climate change. Odograph probably called it right when he said you reject AGW.

Climate science is seriously flawed? I did very clearly say the models are seriously flawed and very limited in their power to predict. But to condemn the entire field of climate science? That's ridiculous. You are putting up a strawman. The climate scientists do great work figuring out various pieces of the puzzle. But I see the puzzle as enormous with many important unknown pieces.

We shouldn't commit to substantial action until it is proven to your satisfaction?

I favor a number of policy changes aimed at shifting away from fossil fuels including, in the US, the wind production tax credit, similar tax credits on solar, policy changes to increase insulation on buildings, acceleration of battery research via both scientific research funding and tax credits on PHEVs, tougher regulations and loan guarantees to shift from coal to nuclear for baseload electric power, and other measures.

Note that I also justify all those policy changes for other reasons: fewer conventional pollutants (e.g. particulates and mercury) and preparation for Peak Oil. I'm basically advocating killing a few birds with one stone with the more important bird being the Peak Oil problem.

I am also thinking that the recent report I posted about making rooftops white is probably something that should be translated into policy. It seems low cost and a good insurance policy.

As for fence sitting: I refuse to go along with the thundering herd of the certain who do not know enough atmospheric physics or computational theory to judge the problem. I know people who have some of the chops needed and they tell me what I already suspected: the models are really inadequate and likely to remain that way. We can not predict because we do not yet know enough to predict how all the feedbacks will balance out.

Ken said at December 2, 2008 1:11 PM:

Randall, referring to the scientists of NCAR, NOAA, GISS, Hadley CRU etc (and those that take them seriously) as - "the thundering herd of the certain who do not know enough atmospheric physics or computational theory to judge the problem" says to me that you are denying the validity of the work of the world's leading climate scientists. Given that most of the major consequences of an ongoing radiative imbalance don't require modelling to have a good idea of what to expect (except as a means of better understanding the interactions and better bounding the estimates of how much how fast under varying scenarios), saying that we don't know if we can expect cooling or warming because the models can't prove any of their results says to me you are denying the validity of the world's leading climate scientists. Having a climate blogroll, where your readers should go if they want to know more from your preferred sources, that begins with 4 sites that consistently argue that mainstream climate science, as presented by the likes of Realclimate, are seriously wrong, plus Realclimate, says to me you want your readers to believe that climate science is woefully inadequate, too wrong to make policy decisions on. That you insist that the uncertainties are greater than mainstream climate science says they are tells me you believe it's seriously wrong. That you fail to see the even greater uncertainty, the unbounded uncertainty, that's intrinsic with other more conventional approaches to projecting the likely outcomes of our planet's ongoing radiative imbalance, leaves open the possibility of more extreme, catastrophic change and should be greater cause for alarm, not less, makes me doubt your grasp of the issue. That you advocate more wait and see as a consequence of your distrust of modelling suggests to me you believe that uncertainty favours less climate impacts than more.

I don't think I misrepresent you at all. You are a climate science denier who consitently encourages people to doubt the validity of mainstream climate science.

Randall Parker said at December 2, 2008 7:36 PM:


You say:

That you insist that the uncertainties are greater than mainstream climate science says they are tells me you believe it's seriously wrong.

Wrong? No, I'm not saying it is wrong. I am saying it is unproven and the models are very incomplete. Know your uncertainties. Democratic voting among top scientists does not turn uncertainties into certainties.

Look, I know biology far better than I know physics. What I've learned watching biology and biomedical science for decades is that the conventional wisdom can be wrong for decades. I've seen this many times. I was taught and believed the conventional wisdom (e.g. that there is no mitosis in the brain) that was based on incomplete data. When more details emerged I was as surprised by various scientists that the conventional wisdom was wrong. If you have not had this experience then I do not expect you to understand how that has shaped my thinking.

Randall, referring to the scientists of NCAR, NOAA, GISS, Hadley CRU etc (and those that take them seriously) as - "the thundering herd of the certain who do not know enough atmospheric physics or computational theory to judge the problem" says to me that you are denying the validity of the work of the world's leading climate scientists.

I do not think of Ph.D. guys in physics as that thundering herd. I'm thinking of lay enthusiasts. If you want to read more into what I say because you disagree with me in order to affirm to yourself that I'm wrong then, hey, have at it. But try asking me what I mean next time.

My blog roll: You way over-interpret that. It is way behind in most categories in terms of what I like to read the most and get the most from. I couldn't even have told you I had climate science related stuff on it since I haven't looked at it in months. I rarely read blogs (except I read The Oil Drum a lot) since I have to spend most of my time looking for content at more original sources.

You definitely misinterpret me here:

That you advocate more wait and see as a consequence of your distrust of modelling suggests to me you believe that uncertainty favours less climate impacts than more.

I've listed some of the policy prescriptions that I support that'll have some impact on climate. Some are cheap ways to buy time (e.g. white roofs). I also tend to support James Hansen's proposal to cut back on methane emissions as a cheap way to buy time. Between whiter roofs, whiter roads, and methane emissions reduction we could easily buy 20-30 years in which to develop cheaper energy tech if cooling is needed.

I've got a number of reasons for not going whole hog toward carbon taxes. Uncertainty due to poor climate models and nonlinearities is only one of them.

Perhaps you haven't read all that I've said on the topic. So let me lay out some points you might not have heard from me:

1) Technology will make the costs of carbon emissions reduction cheaper in the future. I expect technology will make it radically cheaper. Money spent now will be from a smaller wealth base and it will cost more than money spent later. Hence my view that cheaper delaying tactics make more sense now even if the predictions of warming are correct.

2) We can cool the planet drastically and cheaply if we have to. We could bring on a new ice age for less than $1 billion per year. So I'm skeptical of claims of run-away heating. I also expect our ability to do climate engineering will increase greatly.

3) I expect Peak Oil to cause a big decrease in oil demand because it will not be possible to make as much oil as IPCC models assume will get burned. It is like they are fighting the wrong war. I happen to support some of the policies that fearers of AGW support though because I want to speed the transition away from oil that is not going to be there. So I do not mind if some people are certain about models I'm uncertain about since some of the policies you support are needed for other more pressing reasons.

4) I do not think emitted carbon is irreversible. Ways to suck the carbon back out of the air will become cheaper.

5) My guess is it would be far more cost effective to speed up energy tech development than to impose carbon taxes. Energy tech development would come as a result of carbon taxes. But the cost per amount of tech development will be far greater from carbon taxes than from other ways to speed up energy tech development.

6) I do not like international organizations enforcing basically international taxes. Such regimes will decrease freedom and I suspect such regimes are unworkable anyway due to overly huge conflicts of interest between nations. Something like the CFC phase-out was workable because the costs and impacts were far greater. World carbon taxes are a couple of orders of magnitude bigger in impact.

7) I do not like higher taxes period. I expect carbon taxes to come on top of other taxes, not instead of them. I expect this expansion of government will swell the size of governments and lower living standards and slow economic growth.

8) Carbon dioxide build-up will deliver benefits too. For example, some types of plants will grow more rapidly and will grow into deserts. A proper accounting of the effects of CO2 build-up has to consider benefits as well as costs.

Randall Parker said at December 2, 2008 11:15 PM:

Regards Peak Oil and CO2 emissions: Luís de Sousa and Euan Mearns expect atmospheric CO2 concentrations to fall well short of 500 ppm due to Peak Oil. They expect CO2 emissions to peak around 2020.

I think they are on firm ground with their oil production expectations. But I think the future coal production potential is less well understood. I'd rather we cut back on coal and shift to nuclear just to reduce mercury, particulates, and other conventional pollutants. So the anti-AGW camp has served a useful purpose in the US at least by scaring off coal electric plant investors. But coal outside of the US is growing very rapidly and Chinese coal use has far surpassed that of the US.

Ken said at December 6, 2008 3:11 PM:

Randall, apologies for taking time to respond - I don't get opportunities every day to get online - but I do want to respond ...

I don't see lay people who are taking mainstream climate science seriously can be characterised as having a herd mentality; taking the output of the world's leading climate science institutions seriously is not blindly following unsubstantiated opinion. Ultimately few people "have the chops" to evaluate the nuts and bolts of climate science themselves, but I can still recognise bad arguments intended to encourage people to doubt climate science - they are rarely science based and usually misrepresent climate science in serious fundamental ways.
Are you sure your predictions of cheap technologies that will make climate change relative simple to deal with are on a firmer footing than climate modelling? I'd like to believe that we will see the technological solutions reach price competitiveness, but coal is profitable at quite low prices, lower than current ones, it's an industry that appears to have no real desire to embrace CCS or to endure tax and regulatory regimes that force them to include currently externalised environmental costs. Expect their lobbying efforts to keep things that way, backed by their "we are essential and we predict there will never be cheap alternatives" arguments. There are smart guys there too, making their own predictions and their actions speak loudly - they've barely made provision for CCS in future power station design, let alone made efforts to design coal plants capable of rapid starts and stops that suit them to interim placement as backup to intermittent renewables. I've heard a leading spokesman for the US coal generation industry insisting future expansion of coal use is essential with no mention of including CCS.

My responses to your points -
1: I'd like to think low cost, massively mass producable PV and wind, better grids, thermal and compressed air storage and better batteries will come along in time undercut coal... but something that's abundant, easy to dig up and burns with great heat is capable of beating off even low priced competition as long as the external cost remain externalised and are deferrable to future generations. Without focused policy including tax policy and regulation, an industry we need to see clean up after itself or collapse looks just as dirty and stronger than ever.
2: Climate engineering is unproven, it's consequences not understood. Insisting it will work as advertised will have immediate consequences - reduced incentives to deal with the underlying problems - whilst it's long term consequences must be counted as uncertain. If you distrust climate modelling - the best method we have for assessing the nature of complex climate interactions - how do we make any sensible assessment? It may well come to climate engineering but if we can't learn to live within the limits of Earth's biosphere I don't see human civilisation having a long term future. If people have faith in climate engineering fixes the need to shift to sustainable, clean energy will be undermined.
3: Oil is a significant contributor of GHG's but it's overshadowed by coal. Whilst oil is going to get ever scarcer there'll be a price point at which Coal to Liquid is profitable. In the absence of focused policy that puts a priority on reduced emissions, peak oil will lead to energy solutions that increase emissions.
4: Without focused policy the big GHG producing industries won't invest in technology to draw carbon out of the air. Unless it costs them more in carbon taxes than it would cost to do so they probably won't do it. I expect they will consider spending more on lobbying against such regulation a better use of their resources than investing in such plant.
5: I agree that more spent on R&D is essential but without policies that make the externalised environmental costs part of their pricing, major utilities won't have any real incentive to do so. When doing it dirty costs more the incentive will be there to try doing it clean. If it's left as is, the incentive is to invest in more dirty coal plants and not bother with much R&D.
6: International agreements are hard to come by and harder to get to work effectively but I don't see that there are other options. We've already seen the US and Australia seeing national advantage in going slow and coming last. It's an example others will want to follow without strong signals to the contrary. I think we will need targets and the threat of sanctions to see infrastructure investment globally favouring cleaner options for as long as the dirty options are short term cheaper. It's unlikely to be satisfactory to me or to you, but failing to get a handle on climate change is leaving the worst for our kids and grandkids and I don't share your confidence in climate engineering to fix things.
7: Overall levels and mix of taxation are something needing constant oversight and review. If such oversight and review is incapable of dealing with a shift in that mix there's something severely wrong. Maintaining a sensible balance is essential but shifting the tax burden to dirty industries as part of overall policy that makes incentives to invest in clean ones seems sensible and is what I favour. Ever growing taxes is a fear that the likes of Cato and AEI peddle, it's prevention so paramount that promoting the idea that the science is wrong is seen as a reasonable tactic. The atmosphere isn't going to buy that line and nor should you. Be vigilant in preventing excessive taxes but please don't use that fear to undermine the legitimate use of taxation policy to give incentives to shift from dirty energy to clean.
8: Mainstream Climate science has and does consider the effects of increased CO2 on plant growth. Overall such benefits look well and truly overshadowed by negative consequences, just as some regions will benefit from altered rainfall, snow lines, lengthened growing seasons but no fences will successfully isolate the "winners" from the more abundant "losers".

I don't think any of your points were good arguments for failing to act early and with policies that are adequate for the enormity of the challenges being faced. I still think that on balance your contribution has encouraged a distrust of climate science's best estimations of climate change's consequences, encouraged the view that there are easy fixes and encouraged delay on specific policy to deal with it. Combined with your insistence that there is no clear AGW signal, that we don't know if the climate will warm or cool, it adds up to denial. When your reasons for delaying serious policy responses are added to the outright "climate science is wrong" based reasons it adds up to more people wanting to do little or nothing about climate change. With Pacific Decadal Oscillation, Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation currently masking warming, the voices insisting AGW is overblown or over will be louder than ever.

Ken said at December 6, 2008 3:20 PM:

I have to say I'd like to see more direct satellite measurement of what Earth absorbs, reflects and radiates. I understand that suitably instrumented satellites were proposed and designed but never put into orbit, axed by GWB's administration. A lot of arguments over how much the radiative balance has changed could have been settled by such satellites. Long past time to get such satellites into operation.

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