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Sachs’ WSJ Challenge

Filed under: — gavin @ 19 September 2006

Jeffery Sachs of the Columbia Earth Institute has an excellent commentary in Scientific American this month on the disconnect between the Wall Street Journal editorial board and their own reporters (and the rest of the world) when it comes to climate change. He challenges them to truly follow their interest in an “open-minded search for scientific knowledge” by meeting with the “world’s leading climate scientists and to include in that meeting any climate-skeptic scientists that that the Journal editorial board would like to invite”.

RealClimate heartily endorses such an approach and, while we leave it to others to judge who the ‘world leading’ authorities are, we’d certaintly be willing to chip in if asked. To those who would decry this as a waste of time, we would point to The Economist who recently produced a very sensible special on global warming and proposed a number of economically viable ways to tackle it, despite having been reflexively denialist not that many years ago. If the Economist can rise to the challenge, maybe there is hope for the Wall Street Journal….

286 Responses to “Sachs’ WSJ Challenge”

  1. 51
    Mark Shapiro says:

    FYI to all:

    Our government just released the US Climate Technology Technology Program Strategic Plan, at

    A quick glance shows a thorough summary of technology steps, using all the “stabilization wedges”: efficiency, renewables, CCS, nuclear, and fusion. I didn’t see an implementation plan yet. (The summary mentions voluntary measures and market forces, of course.) This will take time to digest.

  2. 52

    #36, Kate Martin of the Herald might have wanted to put Gray’s tropical storm forecast batting record , taking quite the hit this year, especially from his forecast at the onset of the season. But there would not be a story with him because of such an ominous failure. Roger did good though, I appreciate a lot more his views, but he should point out another contrarian than Gray…

    #43 it should not have been an average year according to all the often quoted Hurricane experts. Gray and NTS AMO cycle of +0.2 C will rage for another 20 years! All with 2005 hurricane numbers….. Memory is fleeting….

  3. 53
    llewelly says:

    Our government just released the US Climate Technology Technology Program Strategic Plan, …

    I couldn’t help but notice Hurricane Linda (1997, East Pacific) in the lower left of a picture on page 1 in the Introduction . Compare to this picture, or this picture. Linda was the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the North east Pacific, and it occurred during the staggering El Nino of 1997 to 1998.

  4. 54
    Leonard Evens says:

    Re #14:

    I’ve been following the global warming ‘debate’ from the late 80s. It has been clear from the beginning that the denialists have had a three fold strategy: (1) It is not happening. (2) If it is happening, the amount of warming is insignficant or at least manageable. (3) If it is happening, and the effects are likely to be disruptive, it is too late to do anything about it. It is clear from this strategy that the object is not to argue honestly about global warming but to do everything possible to delay doing anything about it.

  5. 55 says:

    Slightly Off-Topic (Things which give me hope.)

    “California sues car manufacturers over emissions”

  6. 56
    Leonard Evens says:

    With respect to Bill Gray and the other hurricane experts:

    It might be noted that so far this year, the predictions of the hurricane experts, appear to be off with respect to the number of hurricanes. This will undoubtedly be used as evidence that global warming does not affect huricanes, and that chicken littles were reacting hysterically to what happened last year. But in fact, Kerry Emanuel and others, if I understand correctly, have not claimed that there is a relationship between hurricane frequency and global warming, and they certainly wouldn’t cliam that the relationship between intensity of tropical storms and global warming would show up in any one year. So if anyone is mistaken in the science, based on this year, it is Bill Gray and others who claim to be able to predict the likely number of such storms in the current year. Maybe they have to do some more computer modelling :-;

  7. 57
    Leonard Evens says:

    Re #43:

    If I understand correctly, the hurricane predictors have told us we should expect more than the average number of storms this year. In fact, hurricane frequency and intensity should be higher than normal for many years into the future, but, they claim, this has nothing to do with global warming.

  8. 58

    Re: #54

    Leonard, there is a diversity of opinion among the skeptics, with varying degrees of validity. The predominate views are that warming is happening but that the models don’t have the predictive skill needed to justify the more extreme predictions, and that solar activity’s contibution is currently at high levels with significant uncertainty regarding its past levels of forcing, so its contribution may be underestimated and furthermore its activity is likely to decrease, as projected both on the basis of paleo record statistics (per Solanki) and on the basis of solar conveyor theory.

    Solanki’s recent projections that the climate will be cooler by 0.2 degrees C by 2050, imply that far from being too late, we have nearly another 50 years.

    These positions are defensible on any open forum, and I doubt skeptics would run from defending them.

    Why not open up this forum, with skeptics also represented among the contributers to assure that all voices are heard, and then direct the WSJ editors to this site? A more permanent, open and well organized discussion can be had here, with more considered choices of words than at a live meeting, where loquaciousness rather than considered opinion will have an advantage.

    We should all endeavor to address issues directly and not gloss over or dodge them. I suspect that the end result will not be resolution the issue of global warming, but will clarify the current state of the science. We need skillful models of both the climate and solar activity, and that is probably 5 to 10 years or more a way. I hope we don’t have to wait through two solar cycles to validate the conveyor theory, but we may have to.

    [Response: You’ve misunderstood Solanki’s position. If the solar forcing is going to decrease (and I’m not sure that out of the dozen or so predictions out there, there is really a consensus on that), then it would lead to a 0.2 C cooling over what would be expected. He is not arguing for an absolute cooling – just possibly a slightly slower rise. But of course, as soon as any hypothesised cycle switches, it accelarates any GHG warming by about the same rate. There are no peer-reviewed papers (AFAIK) indicating that anything the sun can do will overwhelm the GHG signal in the near future. – gavin]

  9. 59
    Dan says:

    re: 54. There are considerable parallels to the way industry responded to acid rain issues in the 1980s, including the supposed devastating effects any acid deposition precursor emission control programs would have on the economy. Of course we all saw what happened…a booming economy in the 1990s.

  10. 60
    scipio says:

    Business community is by nature often a conservative one. I’d like to be optimistic in a way that once they realize AGW is bad for business, they will revise their position on the matter. The Economist has already done this, WSJ unfortunately not (yet).

    Good news from Britain

    Many thanks for the great site.

  11. 61
    Don Baccus says:

    Re 59: “Business community is by nature often a conservative one. I’d like to be optimistic in a way that once they realize AGW is bad for business, they will revise their position on the matter.”

    Along with the news of Branson’s forthcoming investments mentioned in the above BBC link, the New York Times has another interesting piece:

    If corporate directors really understood the implications of global warming, would they steer their companies toward preventing it?

    Ceres, a coalition of environmentalists and investors; Yale University; and Marsh, the risk and insurance services unit of Marsh & McLennan , insist the answer is yes. And this winter, they will hold what they call sustainable governance forums to give directors an overview of the financial, legal, business and investor implications of climate change.

    “Climate change is no longer the purview of scientists only,” said James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “The widespread ramifications of unchecked climate change require that more leaders in our society understand its implications.”

  12. 62
    Eli Rabett says:

    With respect to Alister and Steve’s points (40, 42), I think what they are getting at was best expressed as weather is an initial value problem, climate is a boundary value problem. I don’t know the original source.

  13. 63
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Re #61:

    I thought I understood initial value and boundary value problems, but I don’t see how climate can be interpreted as a boundary value problem. Eli?

    Best regards.

    Jim Dukelow

    [Response:Weather is an initial value problem, given x(t0) what is x(t)? Climate is an boundary value problem what is the distribution of x given the insolation, atmospheric composition, topography etc. The statistical results of an atmospheric model, for instance, are the same regardless of what the initial values of the atmospheric temperature or humidity are, but they will be systematically different if I change GHG levels, or the size of Rocky mountains… – gavin]

  14. 64
    Leonard Evens says:

    Re #58:

    I think that is a variation of strategy 2: yes, but what about …? It is again an argument to delay any action. I am only a poor mathematician who from time to time struggles to understand the science at anything but a superficial level, but it appears to me that Gavin’s response is in line with other things I’ve read.

  15. 65
    Karl Sanchez says:

    “No more business as usual” is the cliched mantra invoked as a blanket solution that’s never spelled out. The abstract of Mr Legget’s paper provides the first dollar amount AGW mitigation would cost that I’ve seen: $67 Trillion. I see mitigation as “Power Down,” since GHG are most directly tied to power generation for static and mobile applications. So if emissions must fall by 60-70% in short order just to stabilize GHG, then it follows that power generation must fall by a similar amount. This begs the questions How, and What will the people thrown out of work do; questions I realize are beyond the scope of this blog but must be faced. In Gore’s recent speech, he makes the answer seem to be no more than a redirection of our economy, while ignoring the need to radically and rapidly reduce the power generation that runs the economy; in other words, business as usual with a different direction. In the paper I’m writing on this subject, I see no way to avoid throwing at least 50 million households in the USA out of the labor market, which means half of US households would be unemployed; and here I’m being optomistic.

    So in any debate/discussion with WSJ, lurking in the background is the real inconvenient truth: Mitigation = Power Down = Economic Disruption and social chaos.

  16. 66

    Like Jim I did not know about boundary value problems , nor did I know what Steve Sadlov meant by systems theory but Wikipedia is my friend :-)

    It seems that (General) Systems Theory is a generalisation of Dynamical System Theory applied to the social sciences, and what Poincare was saying is that the weather and roulette are similar dynamical systems. One could say that he was contradicting Steve Sadlow, but then Poincare had never heard of General Systems Theory because it was not named until the 1950s and he died in 1912.

    It was Poincare’s genius to visualise dynamical systems and their applications, and only my luck to spot that just as the Rockie Mountains (well CO2 really, but Gavin’s parallel is closer) drive the global temperature, the 00 pocket drives the roulette odds. Interestingly, I have just been reading that it was not just Poincare who anticipated Systems Theory. Hegel also saw the history of civilisation as a general system, with power blocks growing and collapsing. This was the inspiration for Karl Marx and the communist revolution. So does that make me Poincare’s Karl Marx :-(

    If anyone would like to read what Poincare wrote then there is a translation of his book “Science and Hypothesis” at This author’s preface is well worth reading, although I had to cut and paste it into a Word document, then tidy up the pagination before printing it off. His message is that the Newtonian machine is not how the world works. In fact it is chaotic. And he was saying that 100 years ago. See what you think!

  17. 67

    Re: Gavin’s response to #58

    FYI, it looks like Solanki has corrected/adjusted the results he published in Nature in 2004. I find it significant that his new analysis has adjusted past sunspot numbers up, and he has NOT repeated his claim that recent solar activity is the highest in 8000 years. So I assume his claim would be that the recent warming is just one of the highest.

    Your interpretation of Solanki’s 0.2 degrees C prediction might well be right. All I have to go on for that is the reporting in New Scientist: “the most recent calculations by Solanki’s team suggest that the sunspot crash could lead to a cooling of the Earth’s atmosphere by 0.2C” It certainly isn’t from a peer review article.

    I also have only seen press releases of the predictions of the solar conveyor theory. If the predictions are mentioned in peer review papers, I expect that the actual result of the paper would be reporting of the solar conveyor activity and the predictions would likely be only in the discussion, i.e. not peer reviewed. In the press releases/web reports, the next cycle was expected to be highly active, and the following was to be dramatically less active. I intend to become more familiar with the literature in this area, I’ll let you know if I find anything apropo.

  18. 68
    cat black says:

    #59: in the acid rain situation, I think it was fairly obvious what the problem was at the time (dead forests, rotting monuments, dead lakes) and the controls of sulphur emissions were fairly straight forward. Notice too that nothing in industry changed EXCEPT they added scrubbers to powerplants.

    Fast forward to this decade: GW is a hypothetical issue to most common people. The expected results are a few degrees C warming, some melting ice, maybe water shortages somewhere we’re never heard of. Routine stuff really, except for scale, regarding which most people have exactly ZERO comprehension. Further, the solutions are not simply to add a scrubber to a few powerplants, no the solutions being advocated require a 180 degree turn away from resource consumption behaviors ingrained over the full 300 years of the industrial revolution.

    Thus I am not in the LEAST confident that businesses will either pick up the ball or run with it. EVER. It is exactly this reality that spurs the WSJ and others to tear their hair out in black fury over all this “science” stuff. They simply cannot see a means by which 50% of the economy can continue to exist if we decide to turn back the clock 300 years (as they seem to think is likely to happen). And mind you, they may have something to worry about; our domestic industries have been too slow to adapt and might be at a disadvantage in the not-so-distant future. Further, the American consumer seems to have little or no stomach for these kinds of changes.

    I have little hope for a business-led solution, and no hope at all for a consumer-led one, in North America. Given this, and the gravity of the threat before us, it’s hard to maintain one’s spirits.

  19. 69
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 15

    George Landis,

    Most of what you have to offer is mostly speculation and most often not backed up by facts. Most is not a quantifier. I wonder if most people will agree with anyone who uses most as much as you use most?

    Then again, I mostly believe that most of your views about radical left wing enviro-kooks will mostly be seconded by most of your followers most always.

  20. 70
    garhane says:

    Maybe it is time for a DNF list, Do Not Fund. I see that in the UK a polite, though formidable letter from the Royal Society was enough to get a big oil company to reply that they would no longer fund a group of pesky deniers, including some of the worst from the States. Why not circulate a list and see how many companies will join up? If nobody pays they will not say, much.

  21. 71
    Karl Sanchez says:

    For cat black, I understand and share your concern, but a recent poll shows

    “The survey, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, was conducted Aug. 11-16, and included 1,018 respondents. It carries a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points.

    Nearly three of every four – 74% – are more convinced today that global warming is a reality than they were two years ago, the survey shows. Dramatically, it is a sentiment shared by a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and political independents. While many more Democrats believe in global warming (87%), 56% of Republicans concur. Among independents, 82% think we are experiencing the effects of global warming. These numbers indicate a shift in the momentum of global warming believers.” [I really don’t like the word “believers” because it relates to faith and religion; acceptors I see as an improvement.]

    Unfortuately, there’s only the mention that industry needs to reduce emissions, while this somewhat dated chart shows “Industrial processes” emitting 16.8%, which while 2nd is 4.5% less than emissions by power stations. Gore is right about one thing: people need to be educated on this topic rapidly as billions of lives are at stake.

  22. 72
    Grant says:

    Re: #68, #71

    I’d say that Gore deserves much of the credit for changing public perception in the U.S. His movie, and the publicity surrounding it, have dramatically altered public opinion — even among republicans!

    To cat black, I say, it’s hard sometimes for me, too. But it’s also important. Take heart in the fact that *we* can make a difference for future generations; our efforts will not be in vain.

    And a special thanks to the moderators of RealClimate. Not only have you made the case with compelling reason, you’ve also enabled so many of *us* to make a difference too.

  23. 73
    Mark Leggett says:

    Re #65: Karl, you’ve misinterpreted my abstract. $67 trillion is to mitigate the 10 or so global risks I assess, not just global warming. And as the expenditure can occur over several decades it works out, as the abstract states, even for all of them at only about 2% of gross world product per year. The details for all this are from the previously published literature. From this data, my paper simply attempts fairly coarse order-of-magnitude quantity surveying of how much of what is needed to be done to achieve full mitigation, how much would that cost and would it be affordable.

    Re energy alone, my analysis supports what Mr Gore and many others have observed – that it is indeed just a redirection of our energy sources away from greenhouse gas emitters. In my quantification of this, I came up with the pleasantly surprising finding (which obviously will have to survive further checking), that the cost of the required scale of transition to non-emitting energy sources is actually slightly cheaper than what we would spend on new or replaced conventional plant over the period of the next few decades.

    To quote from the paper (Section 3.2.2): “Resource availability is not a constraint: according to The World Energy Assessment, the technically available potential for each carbon and non-carbon) scenario is several orders of magnitude above current global energy use.
    Similarly, cost is not a constraint for a range of energy options: on a levelised (full lifecycle
    cost) basis, current technology for baseload power for nuclear and some renewables
    (geothermal and wind) is comparable to coal (photovoltaics are currently higher in cost)
    [51,52]. Finally, capital requirements: as a share of GDP, energy sector investment in the 1990s
    was 1-1.5 per cent of global GDP, or $0.29-0.43 tr (average $0.36 tr) [13]. To meet the
    GHG reduction target, 60 per cent of the output of this investment would need to be noncarbon
    energy. Assuming for convenience that output is proportional to input, 60 per cent
    of energy sector investment (or $0.22 tr) would have to be in non-carbon energy.
    Concerning costs, the World Energy Assessment [13] has estimated that the above noncarbon scenarios are actually cheaper (by around 50 per cent) than investments expected for a business-as-usual carbon scenario. At, then, conservatively, 30 per cent not 50 per cent lower, capital requirements for noncarbon-scenario packages of (a) nuclear, (b) wind, and (c) geothermal are each costed at
    $0.22 tr_0.7 – $0.15 tr per year, or $0.07 tr per year less than the business as usual case.
    Disaggregated fuel and other elements of levelised costs [13] are hard to source, and so
    they are not specified in this estimate (that is, they are considered to be incurred similarly
    for each scenario). Given this treatment favours dearer non-carbon energy generation,
    such treatment is conservative. With this background, the total non-carbon energy budget increase/decrease required compared to business as usual is negative $0.07 tr. per year.

  24. 74
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Re: 73> Concerning costs, the World Energy Assessment [13] has estimated that the above noncarbon scenarios are actually cheaper (by around 50 per cent) than investments expected for a business-as-usual carbon scenario.

    If that is really true, convincing business to adopt noncarbon generation for baseload power should not be difficult.

    The difficult problem may be convincing environmentalists to allow nuclear to be used.

  25. 75

    Re: #67

    I have found the full text of the Solanki article which I commented upon based only on the abstract:

    To Solanki’s credit, he explicitly comments upon the implications of the new analysis for his previous result. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, when the full text clarifies questions one had when reading only the abstract. My bad.

  26. 76

    I think RC needs a space where comments can be injected from people living at world wide locations, especially places which are experiencing dramatic climate shifts. Like right now in a big chunk of the High Arctic ,no winter yet!, the shrinkage of multi-year Polar ice, astounding for ice connaisseurs, current El-nino going hotter every day, 1997 redux,, the possible Russian winter big freeze repeat, Mid west USA drought, stange cooling near Antarctica, would be nice to read a near live comment from an antarctican….. I am sure that many are feeling a change in the Pacific various ways. Suprisingly some newspapers do this, cover current weather events while taking comments from many areas in this world, but those articles are 3 gems in a huge sand pit, I rather we communicate these events more often then commenting on a paper which is practically hopeless, this site rocks, but climate music should come from everywhere.

  27. 77
    pete best says:

    The problem revolves around time vs the reduction in CO2 emitting technologies. World politics, let alone implementing new technologies is not in our favour to mitigate against probable serious/abrupt climate change. Due to that fact that by around 2050 we would have added another 200 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere (4.5 billion * 44 years) making a trillion tonnes in total and it will not be until this time that we have got large scale CO2 neutral technologies into action then I still say that the odds are against us being successful.

    The best that we can do in the next 50 years is to make sure that increased energy demand is not CO2 emitting but even this is not guaranteed.

  28. 78

    Re #65 and “So in any debate/discussion with WSJ, lurking in the background is the real inconvenient truth: Mitigation = Power Down = Economic Disruption and social chaos.”

    I dispute that we have to generate less power in order to mitigate AGW. We simply have to move to other sources of power.


  29. 79
    Fiona Sullivan says:

    For Cat Black, you might like to check out the MDI compressed air powered car, now in production in France.

    Also a U.S company producing a new solar cell that is roll-printed making it possible, “to put a solar panel on every building”…….I want the car!

  30. 80
    Fiona Sullivan says:

    oops….I forgot the link to the solar cell company

  31. 81
    Luke Silburn says:

    Re: 73, 74

    The total cost can be lower but if, as with nuclear, those costs are primarily upfront, capital investments (or vague future liabilities), then how you raise the money and the assumptions you build into your financing models have a big impact on whether the project is deemed to be viable.

    The experience EDF has built up of building out a nuclear fleet for baseload energy and the Finnish model for decommissioning and long-term storage would seem to indicate that nuclear is a soluble problem if you get the appropriate financial and institutional structures in place. Given the lack of appetite in the anglo-saxon economies for financing large-scale engineering ventures with sovereign debt however; and our, frankly, piss-poor record at working out institutional structures that can handle the intergenerational timescales that long-term repositories require – these may not be a messages that our govts are in a good place (ideologically speaking) to hear.

    Then there’s the whole green thing of course. Doubtless there are many ‘religious’ greens who will maintain their heartfelt antipathy to the big domes, but I think there are enough ‘evidence based’ greens who will hold their noses and accept a nuclear buildout in preference to coal. Ultimately, my gut feeling is that this will be enough to swing the issue.

    Of these two potential roadblocks to acceptance, I’m more worried about the former.


  32. 82
    Milton says:

    RE Cat Black # 68.
    I’m one of those “common” people you say are capable of ZERO comprehension.
    I may not have a degree in a scientific field but I have a lot of “common” sense. If you can demonstrate(I’d like to see it) that you know how to slow down hurricanes, stop glaciers from melting, prevent desease, stop frogs from dying, make ice last longer in the Artic, save the rain forests, stop the sea from rising, etc. etc. by just adjusting a few parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere then I’ll accept my station in life as a common person, and you can have the throne.
    YOU GUYS ARE NUTS IF YOU REALLY BELIEVE YOU CAN CONTROL THE CLIMATE OF THIS PLANET.100 parts per million less CO2 will do it I suppose, come on now, get real-climate.

  33. 83
    Dan says:

    re: 82. Your general personal attack and capital letters/shouting aside as if either do anything to support your comment, we are already affecting the climate of this planet. That is a given. Read the peer-reviewed literature. It is quite comprehensible. The idea that we can only affect climate in a negative way but we can not make positive changes is simply wrong. There are many examples in the past where mankind has caused negative impacts to the environment, only to make changes and corrections for the better.

  34. 84
    Leonard Evens says:

    Re 82:

    So what does your common sense say about doubling or worse the atmospehric concentration of CO_2 and equivalents in other greenhouse gases? Do you claim that you know that climate, both local and global, will be unaffected by such changes? How does common sense convince you that the effect will be minimal?

    I suppose that if your doctor tells you your blood pressure has risen to levels that may affect your health, your common sense tells you to ignore that because clearly those guys can’t predict anything as complex as human health.

  35. 85
    SecularAnimist says:

    Re #74, nuclear electricity generation is not “noncarbon generation”.

    While the actual operation of a nuclear power plant does not emit CO2, the entire nuclear power generation cycle, from the mining, refinement and transport of uranium, to the construction of the power plants, to the “disposal” (actual sequestration) of the waste, to the decommissioning of the power plants, there are large amounts of fossil fuels consumed and GHGs emitted at every phase.

    Of all the alternatives to burning coal and natural gas to produce electricity, including improved efficiency of use, wind turbines, and photovoltaics, nuclear power is the most expensive way to have the smallest impact on reducing CO2 emissions from electricity generation. And that’s before we even get into a discussion of the other serious problems and dangers of nuclear power.

    In my experience, proponents of expanding nuclear electricity generation typically begin with the assumption that it can quickly make a large contribution to reducing GHG emissions, and then move immediately to minimizing the other problems and dangers, and suggesting that the only objections to nuclear power are the irrational concerns of “greens”. But the initial assumption — that nuclear power can significantly and quickly reduce GHG emissions from electricity generation — simply doesn’t hold up.

    Whatever valid arguments there may be for a massive worldwide expansion of nuclear electricity generation, mitigating global warming from GHG emissions is not one of them.

  36. 86
    Milton says:

    Re 82 84

    I must apologize for calling anyone nuts, its just that I can’t conceive of how you can prove that you can control the climate. I’m sure humans and other things could have some impact.
    How do you know that any action we take will make the change needed. Doctors can prove that high blood pressure affects my health and can demonstrate that taking medication will reduce it,however they don’t know if I will die of a heart attack tomorrow, and I don’t think we know how the climate will be 50 years from now. I would not take medicine that had not been proven to work.
    Good Luck, I know this is really a place for climate scientist to communicate, so I won’t interrupt anymore.

  37. 87
    SecularAnimist says:


    I agree that it is “nuts” to believe that humans can “control the climate of this planet.” We have neither the knowledge, nor the understanding, nor the technology to “control” the Earth’s climate.

    But that’s not the issue. The issue is that we are altering the Earth’s climate in an uncontrolled way through our burning of fossil fuels and resulting emissions of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases.

    Imagining that we can “control” or “manage” the Earth’s climate, or the Earth’s biosphere, is extreme hubris, and symptomatic of the very attitudes that have brought us to the present planetary crisis. What we need to “control” is ourselves, to “live within our means”. If we can accomplish that, the Earth’s biosphere and atmosphere can “control” themselves perfectly well.

  38. 88
    George Landis says:

    Yes, homocentric hubris indeed to think we can pick the climate we want and engineer the CO2 content to make it happen. Even some otherwise distinguished scientists do actually think this possible, as this quote from Wally Broecker not long ago about his ideas on CO2 removal technology: “The goal is to stop the net buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere by 2075. If we succeed, humankind might even be able to start cutting the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. That would put us in an interesting position, according to Broecker: “We as a planet would have to decide what CO2 level gives us the best – quote, unquote – climate.”

  39. 89
    Phillip Shaw says:

    Re #88:

    Why do you consider it hubris to hope/expect that someday we’ll be able to control the Earth’s climate to keep it in an optimum state? As SecularAnimist pointed out in #87, we are already altering the Earth’s climate. And have been for some time. The problems are arising because we’re doing it not by design but through ignorance and poor planning, and with little consideration of the consequences.

    If we succeed in arresting the discharge of greenhouse gases we will have a tremendous pool of technology and expertise to draw upon for the task of reducing greenhouse gases to a better level. Do you really think that on the future day that CO2 levels are stabilized that people everywhere will declare “Mission Accomplished” and stop working to improve and restore the environment?

    There is no hubris involved in dedicating ones time and energy to making things better for everyone.

  40. 90
    George Landis says:

    Mr. Shaw, in my opinion it is hubris to think we puny humans could actually control climate, because I don’t think it is even remotely possible. It is, however, human stupidity to think we could actually agree on what that “optimum state” (as you put it), is. What global average temperature is optimum to you? That is more than likely not optimum to me, we cannot as a species even decide what religion is best, or political system, much less what climate and temperature suits everyone as optimum. But I suppose you could let the UN debate it and come to a consensus, how would you like that, considering how good they are at doing things?

    [Response: Before this gets further into the realm of science fiction, it’s probably worth stating that no one seriously considers climate control a relevant issue on the time scales we generally think about (i.e. the next few decades to a century). Andrew Dessler has a good point to make on the existence of an ‘optimum’ climate on his blog (and for those who don’t click through, the point that he makes is that for practical purposes the optimum is the one we have now). -gavin]

  41. 91
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    the point that he makes is that for practical purposes the optimum is the one we have now

    Stability is key. Agriculture has a horizon of two seasons: this growing season and the previous one. The farmer plants this year with the expectation that this year will be like the last one. If there’s more energy in the atmosphere, there will be more variability in weather. Too much variability and his crop fails. Too many failures and there’s famine.

  42. 92
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Re #85:

    SecularAnimist needs to get real. The carbon-releasing aspects of a nuclear fuel cycle are 2nd or 3rd order effects and shared, to a greater or lesser degree, by the alternatives than he likes.

    Given that the US generates 65-70% of its electricity by burning fossil fuel, no feasible ramp-up in nuclear electricity is going to “significantly and quickly reduce GHG emissions from electricity generation”, but each base-load nuclear plant that replaces one or more fossil fuel plants will produce a measurable and non-trivial reduction in CO2 emissions. France is the nuclear poster child at the moment, producing on the order of 70-75% of its electricity from nuclear plants, with a “significant” reduction in CO2 emissions.

    Best regards.

    Jim Dukelow

  43. 93
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Re Gavin’s response in #63:

    I am unpersuaded. Most of the boundary conditions Gavin cites also apply to weather forecasting. It appears to me that climate modeling (with GCMs) has the kind of constraints on the equations and the parameters that Gavin describes, but its real difference from weather forecasting is that the time horizon is pushed way past the threshold where chaos makes a weather forecast silly, out to some distant time t_end AND THEN we apply a variety of statistical functionals to the output to get a statistical description of the average behavior of a weather trajectory over that long time interval. A true boundary problem would define the initial conditions at time t_0 and the final conditions at time t_end and ask for the solution of the equations that satisfied the boundary conditions.

    Best regards.

    Jim Dukelow

    [Response: You don’t get it. The boundary value problem is when the initial values do not matter – i.e. the statistics don’t depend on conditions at t_0 (or t_end for that matter). – gavin]

  44. 94

    Re #90 & 91 I haven’t read Andrew Dessler but I agree with the point that he makes that for practical purposes the optimum is the one we have now.

    But it not the climate we have now that is optimised. It is us who are optimised. We have adapted to maximise the return from the planet and expanded our population to take advantage of all its niches. If we change the climate, then many of these niches will disappear and the inhabitants will suffer. New niches will not relieve the suffering of the losers, nor provide any more happines for their new occupants.

  45. 95

    Re #93
    Jim, what we are saying is that the weather like one throw at roulette. You might win $1, $5, $110 or lose your stake. Similarly the weather tomorrow may be 1C, 5C, or 110F. (Just as there is a maximum stake there is a maximum temperature.)

    However, if you play on the tables for several hours, then you know on average you will lose money and you can calulate how much. It is the same with the climate. If you increase the level of CO2 in the atmosphere over ten years then you know how much on average the temperature will rise.

    You can’t predict how much you will on one the throw of a dice after several hours play, and you can’t tell what the temperature will be on a day in ten years time. But you can say what the climate will be in ten years time.

    Gavin, can you confirm that you agree with this/Poincare’s analogy.

  46. 96
    yartrebo says:

    Re #94:

    It’s not just us … pretty much all life is optimized for the current climate. One can expect a pretty hefty reduction in the productivity of most biomes if the climate changes substantially.

    That aside, the current climate is pretty good. Sea level is reasonably low thanks to Antarctica. Grasslands and temperate forests (the two biomes best suited for humans) cover a pretty hefty portion of the globe. Warm the globe up a little and deserts grow while vast amounts of coastal plains drown. Cool it down a little and much of the planet becomes covered by ice sheets and taiga.

  47. 97
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Dukelow wrote in #92: “SecularAnimist needs to get real.”

    Dutch chemist Jan-Willem Storm van Leeuwen and American physicist Philip Smith have published “a physical analysis of the nuclear system: the full technical and industrial complex, needed to generate electricity from uranium” which examined “the potential contribution of nuclear power to the world energy supply in the future and to the mitigation of the anthropogenic climate change in the future.”

    They concluded:

    “Electricity comprised about 16% of the total world energy consumption in 2005. Less than 16% of the world electricity is generated by nuclear power stations, so the total share of nuclear power is about 2.5% of the world energy generation, slightly less than that of hydropower. Even if the world electricity generation would be all nuclear, it would provide only 16% of the world energy demand.”


    “The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favourable conditions, approximately one-third as much CO2-emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within five years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly. [Emphasis added.]”

    The report is available online, with a summary in HTML and the full text in PDF format:

  48. 98
    Royce Fontenot says:

    Re: #11, #7 The whole State Climatologist issue. I think the letter of support is more a defense of the State Climate Office program as a whole. Having worked several years in a SCO/Regional Climate Center…the folks in those offices have a good grasp of climate change and the issues. Because the programs are “operational” in their nature…the mindset tends to be a bit more towards that of operational forecasters (see Dr Curry’s remarks in previous post and the current issue of BAMS). It’s not a denial mentality…it’s a different culture. As far as the AASC…read the (still current) climate change policy:

    The SCO/RCC program provides important data, research, and outreach functions to the US. I personally was a bit miffed when I read some of the language in the Post. The SCO/RCC programs are a great deal more than “weather librarians”.

    As far as Dr Michaels…he is still the NCDC recognized SC of Virginia.


  49. 99
    Pat Neuman says:

    In a Google group on science environment I responded as to what I think constitutes a proper time frame for one to move from weather to climate. I gave it some more thought and edited my reply as follows:

    Climate exists for periods of little or no change in climate states. Climate states include ice, vegetation, atmospheric and oceanic conditions. As a result of anthropogenic global warming, the world’s climate states have been changing rapidly during the last few decades. Now we have global weather and climate change. We no longer have current global climate, only climate state.

    Original comment in reply 20 of: What does a 100-Year anything mean?

  50. 100
    yartrebo says:

    Re #97:

    From what I got out of that report, current uranium reserves, at least of marginal ores (0.02 to 0.1% concentration) look fairly substantial. The best ores (>10% and decomissioned nuclear weapons) are indeed very close to depleted, but there’s plenty of room between that and ores which cannot be profitable extracted on a net energy basis. While it does mean that we could fuel our reactors for hundreds of years before the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) strictly fell below one, the pollution, including CO2, would be pretty lousy and the EROEI would still be lousy enough to make nuclear power an expensive and inefficient proposition.

    Still, if breeder reactors and fuel reprocessing can ever be made practical, even lousy ores (down to perhaps 0.005% concentration – giving reserves far in excess of other fossil fuels) could be used with an EROEI over 1. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen though.

    As uranium prices have risen rapidly in the last several years (from under $20/kg to about $110/kg today), we’ll probably get much better evidence of how extensive profitable (generally high EROEI) uranium reserves are in a few years.