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Consensus as the New Heresy

Filed under: — group @ 3 January 2007

Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, David Archer, Stefan Rahmstorf, William Connolley, and Raymond Bradley

Andy Revkin, who’s one of the best journalists on the climate beat, wrote a curious piece in the NY Times discussing the ‘middle stance’ of the climate debate. It’s nice to see news pieces on climate that aren’t breathless accounts of a new breakthough and that take the time to point out that the vast majority of relevant scientists take climate change extremely seriously. To that extent, the message of this piece was a welcome one. The curious part, however, was the thread running through the piece that this middle ground is only now emerging, and even curiouser, that this middle ground can be characterized as representing some sort of ‘heresy’.

Heresy, is commonly defined as ‘an opinion or doctrine at variance with the official or orthodox position’. So where does this idea come from, and why is it now ‘emerging’?

It has often been remarked upon that scientists and academics make their reputations by breaking down orthodoxies and by challenging previously widespread assumptions (but it will only work out well if they’re right of course!). Nobody makes much of a name for themselves by agreeing with all previous thinking. Indeed, to be thought of as a radical new thinker, one must assume the role of the heretic, challenging the stale orthodoxies of the past. And given some of the scientific iconoclasts in our pantheon (Galileo, Einstein, Wegner etc.), we see this as a completely natural state of affairs.

However, there is a big difference between really challenging the majority opinion and simply stating that you are. We are all often ‘contrary’, but here at RC we also generally find ourselves firmly in the mainstream on many of the central scientific points: e.g., our views on the most probable value of the climate sensitivity (around 3C), the likelihood of the imminent Gulf Stream reversal (zero), or the possibility of Venusian-style runaway greenhouse effect happening this side of a billion years (extremely small). That these positions are in line with conclusions drawn by IPCC is no surprise, because those reports result from intense discussion and peer-review involving a large fraction of the community, thus they reflect the views of the climate science community very well. Most scientists present these widely shared conclusions when speaking to the public, and where their own views diverge from it, they make it clear that these are their own conclusions rather than a generally accepted view.

In reading about the new ‘heretics’ then, one might have expected that associated with them would be statements that would contradict IPCC or that we (as mainstream scientists who do not claim to be heretics) would otherwise find objectionable. So let’s consider the specific tenets of the ‘new heresy’ mentioned in the article:

  • From Carl Wunsch: ‘It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid’. Agreed.
  • “Many in this camp seek a policy of reducing vulnerability to all climate extremes while building public support for a sustained shift to nonpolluting energy sources”. Sensible.
  • There is “no firm evidence of a heat-triggered strengthening in storms in recent years” (our emphasis). Well, what the WMO statement to which this assertion is attributed actually said was (first bullet point): “Though there is evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic signal in the tropical cyclone climate record to date, no firm conclusion can be made on this point.” We agree with that statement – this particular subject is definitely in a state of flux.
  • “Recent increase[s] in the impact of storms was because of more people getting in harm’s way, not stronger storms”. Again, the WMO report did not state this. What it stated was (third bullet point of statement; emphasis added): “The recent increase in societal impact from tropical cyclones has largely been caused by rising concentrations of population and infrastructure in coastal regions”. These are not quite the same. Once again, we agree with what the WMO actually said. Interestingly, the second bullet point of the WMO statement, not mentioned in the article, “No individual tropical cyclone can be directly attributed to climate change” was voiced by us more than a year ago.
  • “Global warming is real, it’s serious, but it’s just one of many global challenges that we’re facing,”. Of course.
  • From Mike Hulme: “I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama,” he wrote. “I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.” Agreed. And we said much the same thing when commenting on the ‘Climate Porn’ report.
  • “It is best not to gloss over uncertainties”. Duh!
  • “efforts to attribute recent weather extremes to the climate trend, though they may generate headlines in the short run, distract from the real reasons to act”. We couldn’t agree more, and have stated as much before.
  • “‘An Inconvenient Truth’ may push too hard”. Perhaps at last, there is a (moderate) difference of opinion. We agree with Eric’s review of the movie earlier this year, i.e. while there were a few things to quibble with, Gore got the science basically right.

The only substantial disagreement, then, is over a movie review. On all other points of substance the ‘heresy’ and the old orthodoxy are the same.

We’ve emphasised over and over that the science that should inform policy should come from thorough assessment processes like the IPCC and the National Academies. The views of individual scientists (including us) should carry less weight – partly because of our specific biases (due to the field we work in or our personalities), and partly because a thorough discussion and peer review process (like that leading to IPCC reports) will lead to more considered, informed and balanced statements than any individual could muster. Media representations of what individual scientists supposedly said should not be used for policy at all!

Much of the sensationalist talk in the public discourse (and to which the scientists in the piece, and we, rightly take exception) are not the pronoucements of serious scientists in the field, but distorted and often out-of-context quotes that can be further mangled upon frequent repetition. We have often criticised such pieces (here, or here for instance) and it is important to note that the ‘shrill voices of doom’ referred to by Mike Hulme were not scientists, but campaigners.

John Fleck suggests that Revkin’s point was that the middle stance is only now being reflected in the media coverage, which for the highly polarised US discussion could be a valid point – although Revkin’s own work in the New York Times argues against it. So does the fact that all of the scientists discussed in this piece are veterans in media coverage of the issue; their view of things can hardly be called “just emerging”.

Perhaps the real background to Revkin’s piece simply is that some like to use the age-old debating tactic of labelling other views as “extreme” in order to position themselves in the “middle”. If you divide the world into ‘alarmists’ and ‘deniers’, you can then nicely present yourself as the ‘heretic’ who wants to break the mold. But this is a false distinction.

The plain fact is that the vast majority of scientific judgement on this issue – as outlined in the IPCC documents including the AR4 coming up in February- does indeed cover the ‘middle stance’, which we would state as being in agreement with the statement of the National Academies of the G8 last year that ‘the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action’. As Jim Hansen states in his quote – it’s still surprising that there are some people who don’t know this yet.

Further discussion on this piece is available: Matthew Nesbit, John Fleck, Roger Pielke Jr, David Roberts and Andrew Dessler. Also Joseph Romm.


259 Responses to “Consensus as the New Heresy”

  1. 201
    Pat Neuman says:

    Re: 197.

    Not only has it been unusually warm winter in the NE USA but also it’s been an unusually warm in the Midwest and the northern Great Plains. Climate models have been successfully predicting that higher latitudes regions would warm more rapidly than lower latitude regions under a greenhouse warming world – which is exactly what’s been happening for several decades already. No more time to waste – we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions immediately!

  2. 202
    Sashka says:

    Re: 201

    Climate models have been successfully predicting that higher latitudes regions would warm more rapidly than lower latitude regions under a greenhouse warming world

    True but irrelevant. Models do not predict amplified warming below latitude 50. Nor do they predict cooling in India.

  3. 203
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    And (re #200) here’s an article (“Peat Moss – A Ticking Time Bomb”) that backs up what I just wrote, and it indicates 1 degree C rise may be enough to start runaway (from human control) warming: http://www.climateark.org/shared/reader/welcome.aspx?linkid=66265

    RE #197 – yes, India. Recent studies show that the severe flooding there (causing much more economic damage than the great tsunami) is caused by global warming. And drought continues along with flooding; the actual yearly amount of precip is stable, but it comes all at once — it rained more than 40 days and 40 nights Nov-Dec 2005 in our area of Tamil Nadu. My relatives build their home on high land and they got 2.5 ft of flood waters in their home. No elderly person there remembers it ever flooding that much!

    So, I guess in years that India does not experience GW-induced record-breaking heat, it gets these GW-induced floods. Either way, bad news!

  4. 204
    Sashka says:

    Re: 202, 199

    it rained more than 40 days and 40 nights

    Wow! This reminds me of the Biblical Flood. Since the latter occured (if it did) quite a while ago, is it not fair to assume that such extreme events could happen for the reasons unrelated to GW?

    Why is everyone is so trigger-happy to blame GW as soon as the next weather extreme is reported? Remember: floods, droughts, hurricanes, extreme highs and lows have been occuring all the time throughout the history.

    The “axiom” stated in 199 is in-fact non-existent. It’s an unproven hypothesis.

  5. 205
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Re #204. There can be many causes for the same effect, including global warming, flooding, etc.

    Take human death. It can be from disease and from murder by other humans. In the case of recent flooding in India, studies have found it likely due to GW, and expect increased flooding from GW in the future. I.e., we are the “murderers.”

    Now, if you want to flood your own house, go ahead, but please, I implore you to stop flooding my house. At least admit you’re doing it, you’re sorry, and you’ll try to stop. I’m putting forth effort to reduce my harm to others, so I really can’t see why others can’t at least lift their baby finger to do the same.

    see: http://oheraldo.in/node/21057

  6. 206

    Gavin:
    Could you please ask Revkin to have a word with the Editor at the Times? It has just run an editorial that speaks of the atmosphere being “saturated with greenhouse gases ” a usage which might precipitate even wierder popular views than those prevailing.

  7. 207
    Sashka says:

    Re: 205

    There can be many causes for the same effect, including global warming, flooding, etc.

    Exactly.

    In the case of recent flooding in India, studies have found it likely due to GW, and expect increased flooding from GW in the future.

    I don’t believe studies of this nature, and, if I will be allowed to say it, nobody else should either. Whatever success the models have in explaining global temperature averages, the same works a lot works worse in application to regional climate. No model can seriously claim a skill in prediction of anomalous precipitation.

  8. 208
    mzed says:

    I don’t have much more to say, other than to note that current IPCC high-end estimates (that is, forthcoming estimates in the next report) will be about 4.5C. I’ll just say that I don’t deny a Lovelockian scenario any less than the IPCC itself does. Of course I think that all possibilities should be taken into account, and I have no problem with a healthy debate. I’m just saying that it is apparently a fact that that is the current high-end IPCC estimate.

    Also, the moderate “minimalist” response might be an old position, but it has certainly been lost in the press over the past years. So IMO I think giving it more attention is a good thing. It is at least “moderate” from a political standpoint, so again it’s probably a good thing. Speaking for myself, I’m less interested in labeling people as “alarmists” and “denyers” as I am in getting the issues explained clearly. If you want the debate to change for the better, maybe see this as a positive first step.

  9. 209
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Why is everyone is so trigger-happy to blame GW as soon as the next weather extreme is reported? Remember: floods, droughts, hurricanes, extreme highs and lows have been occuring all the time throughout the history.

    The “axiom” stated in 199 is in-fact non-existent. It’s an unproven hypothesis.

    Energy leads to variety. Entropy produces gray uniformity — the ultimate in unusable energy. That’s the broad axiom I referred to. Not anything limited to climate.

    And I nowhere claimed that GW was the cause for any single event, just that more energy in the atmosphere would lead to more distinguishable events.

  10. 210
    Sashka says:

    Re: 210

    In turn, I didn’t say your thinking was unreasonable. But you are confusing a (poorly formulated) theorem with axiom. For illustration, consider a boiling pot of water. You can input a lot of energy but you won’t see a lot of variety.

  11. 211
    SecularAnimist says:

    Sashka wrote in #207: “I don’t believe studies of this nature, and, if I will be allowed to say it, nobody else should either.”

    With all due respect, it seems that much of the content of your comments consists of asserting, without any substantive reason, that you “don’t believe” studies that tell you what you don’t want to hear.

    I don’t say this as any sort of personal attack. I think it exemplifies a common attitude towards global warming and climate change — a deep-seated feeling that “such things simply cannot happen” and then an a priori rejection of, or “disbelief in”, scientific studies which indicate that they can happen, and likely will happen, and in fact are happening.

    Some self-described AGW “skeptics” have objected to the words “denier” or “denialist” as inflammatory, because of the perceived parallels with Holocaust “denial”.

    But there is another import to “denial” — the denial that some people experience when informed that they are dying. I think that some “climate change deniers” are experiencing, and expressing, this sort of “denial”, rather than the “denial” of those who claim the Holocaust never happened or has been exaggerated.

  12. 212
    S. O'Connor says:

    Exxon�s New Position On Global Warming, Same As Its Old Position On Global Warming
    The Guardian is reporting that ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson recently promised investors that it plans to �soften� its public image on global warming. But as one person at the meeting noted, Exxon doesn�t actually plan to change its positions:

    Chairman and chief executive Rex Tillerson made clear to a select group of top Wall Street fund managers and equity analysts that it would not be changing its basic position on global warming – just explain it better. â�¦

    A note put out after the meeting by Fadel Gheit, oil analyst at the Oppenheimer brokerage in New York, says the company �has clearly taken a much less adversial and more reconciliatory position on key environmental issues.�

    But the note adds: �Although the tone has changed, the substance remains the same.�

    The company told the Guardian that its official position on climate change is that greenhouse gas emissions �are one of the factors that contribute to climate change� and despite the �scientific uncertainties, the risk (of global warming) is so great that it justifies taking action.�

    Exxon can attempt to soften its language as much as it wants, but its record remains clear. According to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon has �funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.� The big-oil front group the Competitive Enterprise Institute has received $1.6 million from Exxon since 1998, using the funding to distort global warming research and attack any meaningful action to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
    http://thinkprogress.org/2007/01/09/exxon-global-warming/

  13. 213
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #207, I’m not sure what the study re monsoon flooding in India was based on, but it did mention they were able to rule out natural fluctuations.

    I also know that monsoons (over land, needed for agriculture) are extremely sensitive in India to the difference between land & ocean temperature. If the oceans get warmer vis-a-vis the land, the monsoons precipitate over the ocean, causing drought in India. So, GW seems to mean less rain when they need it during the growing season, and heavy rains during winter.

    Even if you are unsure of the science, should we be taking such a risk with such a huge population…not to mention the glacier melt that will impact Northern India & put up to 40% of India’s population at risk of starvation. Surely you would agree that global warming may very likely (eventually) lead to glacier melt.

    It’s just not right to gamble with other people’s lives….even if it’s only 1-to-6 odds (as in Russian Roulette) that GW will happen and have these negative effects.

  14. 214
    David Price says:

    In India I read that there is at present a big cloud of aerosol pollution over India caused by cars, rural stoves etc. This is cooling India enough to cancel out the effects AGW there most of the time. In summer the monsoon washes it away. Though models say AGW should increace the intensity of the monsoon the cloud is causing it to weaken. This is the real disaster facing India.

  15. 215
    Sally says:

    Re: 210, “I didn’t say your thinking was unreasonable. But you are confusing a (poorly formulated) theorem with axiom. For illustration, consider a boiling pot of water. You can input a lot of energy but you won’t see a lot of variety.”

    Not if you are looking at clear water… until it boils and then you will see movement and vapour. However, try using another of your senses and put your hand in. Then you’ll notice some variety.

  16. 216

    Re ” Models do not predict amplified warming below latitude 50. Nor do they predict cooling in India.”

    They don’t predict who will win the World Series in 2007, either, but they have gotten an awful lot right in the past few decades. I’ll bet on the models.

  17. 217
    Hank Roberts says:

    > consider a boiling pot of water. You can input
    > a lot of energy but you won’t see a lot of variety.
    —Comment by Sashka

    Try it yourself, for real, and watch. Shining a light through a Pyrex bowl while it’s heating up will help you see the variety of fluid motion, starting from cold, as you add heat energy.

    Or try putting a block of ice in the middle as you warm it up, to see even more. Adding a bit of pepper or other fine particles, and maybe a single grain of a non-sudsing dishwasher detergent to break the surface tension, will help.

    You’ll be recreating one of the basic teaching moments in climate study.

  18. 218
    Pat Neuman says:

    Climate models have been successfully predicting that higher latitudes regions would warm more rapidly than lower latitude regions under a greenhouse warming world.

    My earlier comment (above)

    -

    True but irrelevant. Models do not predict amplified warming below latitude 50. Nor do they predict cooling in India.

    Earlier comment by Sashka (above)

    -

    In my earlier comment, I meant to say Climate modelers say…, rather than climate models say. Regardless, it is very relevant to India and other regions below a latitude of 50. Greater warming in higher latitudes regions will mean faster and higher increases in sea level.

  19. 219
    Hank Roberts says:

    Sashka, your faith is strong and you say what you believe, but you don’t tell us why you believe it, or who you’re trusting. What models are you talking about?

    Have you looked at any of these?
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=234
    http://www.realclimate.org/bitz_Fig2.gif

  20. 220
    Sashka says:

    Re: 217

    Once the boiling point is reached, the statistics of velocities and temperature will be pretty uniform away from the boundaries, assuming that stable convective cells are not formed.

  21. 221
    Sashka says:

    Re: 219

    More often I say what I don’t believe. Such is the nature of this blog.

    I don’t have much faith in any long-term quantitative model predictions. I do have some faith in qualitative results that are physically intuitive and can be explained in simple models (not GCM). Polar amplification is indeed one of the more trustworthy results obtained by the climate science.

    The fact that so far it is only observed in the North doesn’t completely invalidate the result but doesn’t inspire additional confidence either. I saw Gavin’s paper where he’s explaining what’s going on but to me it only means that (as far as predictions are concerned) the proverbial grain of salt just grew bigger.

  22. 222
    Gar Lipow says:

    >Stop Climate Chaos

    I like that as a term. If you are looking for variety, I like Amory Lovins’ “Global Weirding”.

    >Realistically, would anyone care to make a prediction about what will be the first year in which global CO2 emissions are lower than the year before?

    No, because it is not an external force – it is a choice. Once we decide to seriously try to reduce emissions, to spend the money we have to spend and piss off the people we will have to piss off, then it we can the first emissions drop (though perhaps a small one) take place fairly quickly.

    Not a prediction, but a guess. If we took this as seriously as the world took,say WWII, we could get policy passed in six months. If the policy chosen motivated reductions, we could see an early emissions drop within a year to a year and a half. So again noting that this is a SWAG, not prediction, I would say between eighteen months and two years after a decision was made to act seriously on the problem.

  23. 223
    mark s says:

    RE 181

    David,

    lovelocks fears are certainly not regarded as gospel by the british media, where did you get that idea?

    I’m not saying that i believe that lovelocks ‘worst case scenario’ is likely, but it should be remembered that he could not identify all of Gaia’s mechanisms, when he first proposed that theory. Also, our esteemed moderators have admitted that they are worried about currently unknown positive forcings, which may come into play, in the future.

    I first read his book in spring of 2006, and found it extreme, but not totally implausible. A good, useful cautionary tale, if you like.

    Unfortunately, in the 9 months since the science has (arguably!) been edging towards lovelock, and certainly not moving away from him.

    I’m not saying he is right, just that we ought to respect his contribution. i wonder how i/we will feel about it in another years time?

    Hopefully, not like the people who laughed at Gaia theory!

  24. 224
    Reden says:

    All I know is its happening. Instead of bickering, why dont we focus our efforts on trying to stop it?

  25. 225
    David Price says:

    Re223
    It easy to get paranoid. In the media doom and sensationalism sells a lot better than abtruse and painstaking expositions from professionals. I read a review of his book in Daily Telegraph ( the sister paper to the one which published Monckton). The tone was simpering. It’s exterme doom message was bought hook, line and sinker.
    I also worry about where Lovelock is coming from. His averion to heat is such he seems to regard ice ages as a good thing.(gia trying to keep cool). If you think global warming is bad for us try another ice age. As a catastrophie it would dwarf the worst warming senario.
    After all when the world was last very hot in the cretacious life florished. The credence given to Lovelock and his dubious assumptions is frightening

  26. 226
    Michael Mott says:

    I find it refreshng to read the commentaries by those people who are engaged in the research about our climate. As a lay person with little scientific knowledge of the details being discussed I cannot help but notice that my environment has been rather erratic. I live in Alberta in Western Canada, and the winters have become much less predictable in the 40 years that I have lived here since moving from England. 30 years ago the snows were more consistent than they are today. We have had a few brown christmases and this year there is more snow than I can remember at this time of the year. In vancouver there have been violent windstorms that have devastated Stanley park destroying a great amount of the very large trees. My own observations lead me to think that changes in the climate will continue. I have a difficult time understanding our reluctance to see that changing our dependance on fuels that by most acounts are damaging the planet that supports us. Just how long can you live in the garage with the car running and the door closed? A microcosm of the macro.

    regards Michael Mott

  27. 227
    Ike Solem says:

    Eli, thanks for the link but it isn’t working. According to this Sept 4 2006 BBC story, the core is back to 800,000 years. It has this wake up and smell the coffee quote from Dr Wolff:

    “The “scary thing”, he added, was the rate of change now occurring in CO2 concentrations. In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years.

    “The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don’t have an analogue in our records,” he said.”

    RE#225, “the credence given to Lovelock and his dubious assumptions is frightening”, well… it depends on what scenario you are looking at. The following numbers are a bit out of date, (Jeremey Leggett, The Carbon War, 2000 – explains the political manipulations behind Kyoto, etc.) but here they are:

    580 billion tons of carbon: pre-industrial atmospheric content�
    750 billion tons of carbon: year 2000 atmospheric content.�
    10000 billion tons of carbon: the remaining fossil fuel reserves (200 oil, 1000 gas, the rest coal)
    �6 billion tons of carbon: amount we are adding to the atmosphere each year.

    Assuming that global energy demand continues to rise, and that coal will be the main energy source, then Lovelock’s predictions are not unrealistic in the long run. However, if sane heads prevail and a massive transition to renewables is initiated (see Gar Lipow’s post) then Lovelock’s predicitons seem unlikely.

  28. 228
    mark s says:

    RE 225 and 181,

    I agree David, it is easy to get paranoid, which is why RC has been such a great resource for me, as i’m sure it has to many others. In fact i followed the lovelock thread on RC, with great interest, especially our moderators views.

    I don’t generally read the Telegraph, but i am an active consumer of the UK media, especially on AGW issues.

    Certainly the Stern report was given a lot of time and respect, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the depth and breadth of its detailed economic analysis, and the fact that it was funded by the UK govnt.

    But Lovelock’s book has certainly not been treated as ‘mainstream’ or ‘gospel’. IMHO, he tends to be characterised as a rather scary, but distinguished ‘cassandra’ figure. Most reviews have criticised the book for its pessimism. It sounds like a poor, uncritical review, and really the Telegraph ought to know better. But then, if they are giving airtime to Monckton…

    Also, I don’t think that Lovelock regards ice ages as a ‘good thing’, but more (as you suggest) as a necessary part of Gaia’s attempt to keep the earth cool enough for life. And i really don’t think anyone is expecting an ice age, any time soon, because we are having such a big impact on CO2 levels.

    I don’t think suggesting that warming might be faster than the models predictions, is that wild either.

    Again, I refer you to the widely expressed concerns, that we may not have all the positive forcings nailed down, and that we are not finding many negative forcings.

    I’m far from Lovelocks biggest fan, but he has a holistic approach, which has served him well in the past. We should be insuring ourselves against such ‘outliers’, not ignoring them.

  29. 229
    Jim says:

    Re 64.

    I buy 100% electricity via wind power.

    I have a lot of fun listening to folks who think that the power they get is different than the power for everyone connected to the SAME grid is getting. Fact is wind power , coal power etc.etc is all delivered to the grid as one supply which is then balanced to the load on that grid. No one individual’s power can be delivered from a specific source. (That would involve building a grid just to deliver wind power which is absurd.) So what you are paying for is the ability to think that you have wind power when in fact you don’t. You have only a fraction of your power generated by wind and all the rest is generated by fossil fuels. What you are proving is you are a sucker and are probably the same sucker who only buys “organic” foods. (BTW the asphalt outside is organic does it look tasty?)

    Jim

  30. 230
    James says:

    Re #229: That’s quite a remarkable misinterpretation of how the electric grid works, though it’s correct in a sense: when you turn on your PC, there’s no way to tell for sure what generating plant the particular electrons you’re using came from. (And even that’s an over-simplification, as in an AC grid the electrons just wiggle back and forth some miniscule distance.)

    We’re really dealing with economics. There are ways by which energy from particular plants is constrained to flow along certain paths in the grid. Your electric utility has a system control center, where people (aided by computer programs) make decisions about which particular power sources will be used at any time. There might for instance be a choice between getting cheap hydro power from the Columbia, more expensive coal-fired power, using still more expensive nearby natural gas turbines, etc. The constraints include not only price but system powerflow & stability: can I actually import those MWh without overloading the intertie to the Pacific Northwest? If the line goes down, do I still have enough spinning reserve to keep my local grid up until things can be re-configured? And on and on…

    The key point is that there’s also a whole system of accounting going on: your local utility delivers some KWh to your meter every month, and expects to you to pay for them. It in turn got those KWhs from somewhere, and the people who produced them expect to get paid too. What those green power purchase agreements do is to add in another economic factor to the decisions made in system control. They’re basically a subsidy: you’re to pay more for “green” power, so your local utility will keep importing power from the green producer even when it would be cheaper to get it from another source.

  31. 231
    Jim says:

    I did over simplify as the grid is a very complex beast as you know. However you missed they point. When someone says they get 100% green electricity from a eletric power company, they simply don’t know what they are talking about. They may be paying, but that is not what they are getting. Load and power generation capacity are dynamic and change based upon daily and hourly decisions of the electric power company in order to keep the grid stable and balanced to load (Which changes every minute) for the least dollars.
    My point was that it is not possible for a power company to give any one customer 100% of their power from a particular power source such as wind from a common power distribution grid. Not everyone understands electricity so please excuse me diluting it somewhat.

  32. 232
    James says:

    That depends on your point of view. From an economic POV, the Treehugger family uses some number of KWh each month, and pays the Green Power company to generate that many KWh and put them on the grid. Seems to me the underlying electrical details don’t really matter, except to the system operators and such.

  33. 233
    Jim says:

    It is not merely a detail, it is a hard fact that not many understand. It just struck a negative chord in me for someone to say something that was merely wishful thinking, and in such a condescdending tone so I called him on it. It is also kind of sad and funny at the same time that someone pays more for one of the cheapest forms of energy conversion.

  34. 234
    Hank Roberts says:

    But this is how the market system works, even where the ‘product’ is electricity and mixed in transmission — people who decide they prefer to be responsible for the externalized costs of energy production will support the wind and solar energy producers so their money isn’t supporting, say, coal burning plants — and their preferred producers benefit and can expand their share of the market.

    People who’ve invested in less pollution-intensive energy producers may pay more now to own a generating company stock that’s solar or hydro or wind-based, and perhaps find they own a better deal later, if the externalized costs are brought back into the market by, say, a carbon tax/trade system.

    People aren’t necessarily being foolish to put their money into what they believe should get bigger and try to keep their money away from what they don’t want to encourage. In fact, they may be making good economic decisions — for some notions of what the economy is.

    As someone didn’t quite say, the capitalist will indeed sell you the rope you will use to try to hang him, but if you buy the cheapest available rope, don’t be surprised if it breaks when you try. If you want the market to produce better quality products, don’t always buy the lowest priced stuff without considering the other costs involved overall.

  35. 235
    llewelly says:

    The relevant question is, does paying the ‘green power’ bill, as opposed to the ‘whatever power’ bill, cause the company to change its power production to generate less CO2?
    If it does not, then we must forget consumer responsibility on this issue, and place the responsibility soley on the power companies.

  36. 236
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 229 to 235

    A great discussion on a matter as important to AGW solutions as is the understanding of the condition of my circulatory system to my cardiologist.

    This tells me RC really can accommodate a discussion of this nature (electrons) without boring readers (at least I was not bored) or running afoul of the subject matter the RC developers wanted to cultivate. The electricity grid is high science.

    RE # 235,

    I would amend your comment to say: encourage, in every possible way, consumer responsibility but accept the grounded truth that any serious mitigation plan must start with the upstream approach. Factor environmental externalities into the cost of the fuel and the generated power. That will result in higher costs that affect wasteful consumers the hardest.

    I seem to recall President Clinton and VP Gore proposed a Btu tax which environmental organizations backed away from because they assumed it would not pass in the Republican Congress.

    The green machine did not want to take on an issue it could not win. But, they did not try!

  37. 237
    llewelly says:

    John McCormick – I agree with you amendment.
    As far as I know, paying the ‘green power bill’ does change power company behavior. My if clause was intended to refer to a hypothetical situation.

  38. 238
    James says:

    Re #233: It’s a fact, but it’s an irrelevant one. Maybe it would help if you thought of the electric grid as analogous to the banking system. Say you go to the bank, take a few bills from your wallet, and deposit them in your account. Next week you decide to take some out: do you care – or even stop to think – that the bills you’re getting are almost certainly not the ones you deposited?

    Of course you don’t. As long as the system keeps proper track of how much money you have, the actual currency is irrelevant. You may even get your salary deposited as electrons, and if you happen to be visiting Europe, use your ATM card to withdraw Euros, Swiss Francs, or British pounds. (Which is pretty in amazing itself, when you stop to think about it :-))

    It’s the same with the power grid. What matters is that the system keeps proper track of who makes deposits and withdrawals, and moves the money accordingly.

    And re #236: Seems to me the simple way to bring about CO2 reduction is to tax it. Replace sales taxes (or VAT in Europe), with a tax on whatever produces CO2 – gasoline, coal & gas-fired electricity, etc. Set the inital rate so the governments take the same amount of money, then (on average) no one would be worse off because of the change, so political resistance would be minimal. Indeed, those who think they can easily reduce their CO2 should support it; while it gives everyone much more opportunity and incentive to engage in tax avoidance… err, I mean CO2 reducion :-)

  39. 239
    Nigel Williams says:

    Re #239
    Thanks for the heads up Charles! And here was me thinking all this blather about climate change was just so much hot air! :(

    Sure, as a species we are running into interesting times, but some individuals will no doubt survive, someplace somewhere for a bit.

    You’ve obviously thought about this and have a useful contribution to make. Apart from the bend over and kiss yourself goodbye option, do you have any thoughts on the optimum course of action a small community of like-minded souls could pursue to prepare for the long summer?

  40. 240

    Re “The end of humankind’s time on Earth is coming to an end, and I welcome it.”

    1. Global warming will disrupt our agriculture and our economy badly, but it will not destroy humanity, or even human civilization.

    2. Being a human being myself, I tend to approve of Locke’s premise — “that mankind ought to be preserved.” What kind of viewpoint approves of the destruction of humanity? All I can think of are A) the viewpoint in Hell, and B) the viewpoint of extraterrestrials who want to colonize the planet after we’re gone. Which are you writing from?

  41. 241
    Sally says:

    Re: 239 Precis “Climate change has already made it impossible to tackle global warming.”

    Hmmmm. Does anyone else have a problem with this sentence?

  42. 242
    Hank Roberts says:

    “Do nothing” is the Exxon/Western Fuels strategy.

    This may help:
    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1332674

  43. 243
    garhaneg says:

    Perhaps the biggest issue of science policy over the past year or so in the USA in the view of this reader, has been the expanding efforts of the current Federal administration to bully the science administrators and scientists into accepting censorship of their scientific work. This was not a matter of dredging up threadbare denialist argument, but of “editing” what the scientists had to say. In no case can there be any point in training people in the sciences, developing the whole institution of peer review and the general Popperian standard of research, paying out billions for extensive studies, then crudely painting out their words. In one case that came to be the classic, a veteran oil company publicist employed at the White House for a short period, simply smudged out and replaced a few words in the write up of a Federal study. The result was that where the scientists had intended to advise government that the climate was undoubtedly growing warmer due to human action, what emerged was the timid suggestion that it might be doing so. In much the same way one could change an urgent telephone message that the bank was being robbed into the mildly expressed opinion that it might be. In this way what the scientists sought to advise government was corrupted into the message that Exxon (among others) had financially encouraged for decades, the fostering of the idea among the public that all was “uncertainty” in climate science.
    It could be no surprize that this crude attempt at socially destructive censorship ran right into a fire storm of protest, and the most recent item in that story that I have seen was the news that some 10000 plus scientists including a large number of highly respected ones had endorsed a petition in protest, organized through the UCS. The protest was aimed at this censorship and literally hundreds of others, detailed with precision. Many others including eco activists, established authors, environmental scientists active in providing understanding to the public,journalists and most recently government figures joined in the expressions of concern.

    This was a time when there was a real need for a group in the field of science policy to step up and focus that protest. Yet the blog that claims to be concerned with science policy took the part of the US Federal administration and its thuggish treament of science and the scientists. Indeed it is really unpleasant to view the threadbare arguements and obvious rhetoric with which R. Pielke attacks the scientists and defends the oil company publicist (employed by the government at the time) and even tries to make equivalent the courageous and principled whistle blower, who resigned his position in order to alert the public, with the unprincipled publicist who resigned his government position after he was discovered.

    This reader concluded that Pielke was with the enemies of science, when push came to shove.

  44. 244
    mark says:

    Steve,
    Do you have any evidence at all that people who take global warming seriously actually are doing it because they want communism? I hear the right endlessly compare environmentalism to marxism, but always without any actual evidence. In reality, communist regimes have always been strongly against protecting the environment (at one point China was against it because it was a “capitalist excess”). What exactly is the “green orthodoxy” you think climate scientists support?

    The fact is it isn’t really much of a continuum, you either believe the vast majority of scientists and agree we need immediate action on climate change, or you don’t. Of course there are different positions but the effect is the same. Someone who doesn’t believe it’s a problem now after looking at the evidence, probably never will.

    Global warming supporters are deried as “alarmists” and “campaigners” but if the future of the planet is at stake, what should the response be? It appears among lots of people if you don’t take environmental issues seriously you’re though of as calm and rational, and if you are worried it necessarily means you’re some kind of loony (as if being worried necessarily means being wrong). The people on the Titanic who were worried about icebergs and the crew’s attitude that the ship was unsinkable were thought of as “alarmists” too and we all know how that turned out.

  45. 245
    Kevin says:

    Determining the Ideal Average Temperature.

    Until I can see anyone on earth determine what the most ideal average temperature on earth is or should be, I will remain sceptical about all the worry about global climate change.

    The basic assumption seems to be that our temperature now or perhaps what it was before the industrial revolution was that precious ideal temperature.

    Yes, you can point out that if you have more water in some areas then there will be more flooding. Then one could point out that if you have less water there will be more famines. But neither local flooding nor local famines convince me that the result of a higher and or lower temperature is bad for the environment.

    We look at the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Those days were substantially warmer than today. The CO2 rates were substantially higher in those days. The diversity of life was higher then too. To be able to feed and sustain such large animals the food supply must have been larger then too.

    So here we are today, thinking like the days in times past that we are the center of our solar system and our current average tempurature must surely be the ideal temperature and must be maintained at all costs.

    So, again, I ask, what is the scientific consensus on what the ideal average earth temperature is that we should set as our target.

    30 years ago the current scare was global cooling. Today the current scare is global warming. I assume that in both cases it was change that was feared the most. We must avoid change because it means somebody will have to adjust to the change. It cant get colder because that means people used to warmer weather will have to adjust to it being colder. And it cant get hotter because then people used to cooler temperatures will have to adjust to it being hotter.

  46. 246
    Dan says:

    re: 246. “30 years ago the current scare was global cooling.”

    No. That is a very old myth that has been perpetuated by contrarians and denialists. Just conduct a simple search on this web site for the specifics instead of just reciting/repeating what denialists have told you. Specifically see http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=94. And also see http://illconsidered.blogspot.com/2006/02/they-predicted-cooling-in-1970s.html

    As for the other often brought-up canards such as CO2 levels and warm temperatures during the era when dinosaurs roamed, you will find how they are debunked again either by a simple search on this web site or at the many excellent links provided at http://illconsidered.blogspot.com/2006/03/guides-by-category.html.

    We are talking about *recent* (half-century) warming that can not be explained by simple natural variations. Only when forcings from anthropogenic CO2 are included can recent warming be explained.

  47. 247
    Neal J. King says:

    re: 246

    Kevin, the issue is not whether the temperature change is to the higher or to the lower. The issue is how fast this change occurs.

    If it happens at human timescales instead of at geological timescales, the likelihood is that many species will not be able to cope, and will die out, without having the chance to leave descendants that are better adapted to the new environment(s). This means we will lose a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Biodiversity itself is an element of robustness against unforseen and unforseeable problems in the future.

    Over time, this reduction in biodiversity will be overcome; but there will be the intervening period (many thousands of years) during which our world will be experiencing a “bottle-neck” of biodiversity.

    A less abstract aspect of this cost: reduction in the source material from which we hope to derive the medicines of the future, as we have from this derived the pharmacopia of the present.

    A very concrete version of this: The sheer “entertainment value” that we obtain from the variety of flora & fauna today: coral reefs, aquariums, zoos, safaries. Think a minute: Imagine a world in which there were no animals other than humans and their domestic animals. If then anything else were to be discovered, it would be a source of great excitement and wonder. Now imagine going from the world we have now to that impoverished world. How much are these experiences worth to us?

  48. 248
    Marcus says:

    Re: 246: Kevin, in fact, we do want to avoid large changes in either direction in our climate exactly because it will require a lot of costly investment. We have a lot of human, physical, and ecological capital invested in our current climatic conditions. In the absence of that invested capital… I don’t know that there is good reason to think one temperature is better than another (within a reasonable range, ignoring Snowball Earths and Venusian runaways). But that capital _is_ invested: people own waterfront property and live on low-lying islands, farmers are invested in currently fertile areas, ski resorts depend on temperatures below freezing, houses and railroads are built on permafrost, people depend on melt from snowpacks in the Himalayas for drinking water… not to mention the ecosystems which don’t have the adaptation potential of humans, the tundra that will disappear, the coral reefs that will die, etc. etc. Sure, new ecosystems will take their place, new coral reefs will grow… but over a time span of thousands of years. I would kind of like it for my (hypothetical) grandkids to be able to swim in coral reefs and see glaciers and know that polar bears are still around.

    After all, once upon a time dinosaurs roamed the earth, as you said. Is the world better or worse now than it was then on an absolute scale? I don’t know. But I do know that as far as the dinosaurs are concerned, the change from then until now absolutely sucked.

    It is also unfortunate that those people and animals who will likely suffer the most from climate change are not the ones who are benefiting from our spree of fossil fuel burning. Which is why in an ideal world, greenhouse gas emissions would be taxed and the proceeds would go to compensate those who suffer from the end result of emissions, as well as to protect and aid ecosystems that would be damaged, where possible. But determining a fair and just way to do so would be… difficult, to say the least.

  49. 249
    Hank Roberts says:

    >determining a fair and just way

    At least that’s not unthinkable — some people whose work I respect are coming out with serious papers discussing how we might do that. For instance:

    http://www.ecoequity.org/docs/InconvenientTruth2.pdf

  50. 250
    Jim says:

    I do not understand why some people always say that temperature will always be bad. For some folks change is always terrible and humans and the planet are done for etc.etc. Whether or not I believe warming is happening. (Yes it is getting warmer.) I do not know the affects of warming but I know this, we as a species and the species diversity will not be doomed. We have survived changes such as this before (last glacial maximum was around 18,000 years ago and humans were here then else we would not be here today.) and to say that we can no longer do so is pure stupdity.

    Regarding number 238. It is not irrelevant. You say follow the money. I say what is really happening? Which one in the scheme of things means the most? It seems you seem to think that just because something appears to be a certain way is more important than what it really is. I hope you don’t look for women the way you think. One other little thing, hydro is not green power so don’t count it. Nobody know how good wind is either. Just becuase something doesn’t emit GHG doesnt mean it does not do harm. That there are no known observable affects today for wind does not mean that it is a good thing. Remeber we did not think oil was bad at first either and now look where we are! Think of this small amounts of C02 are supposed to make major changes to the earth right. Now start extracting that much energy that we used to get from oil from wind. Would that not have an affect? What happens when energy needs double, triple. You gonna put up a windmill every 5 feet? We have to find something more, something viable to replace oil. Wind is nothing more than a bandaid on a sawed off leg.


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