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Worth a Look

Filed under: — mike @ 20 September 2007

We’re pleased to report that, after a rough start, Nature’s blog ‘Climate Feedback’ seems to have gotten back on track. We’re happy to endorse it as a useful resource for those interested in relatively informal discussions of issues at the leading edge of current climate research.

A good place to start are two excellent recent entries by Kevin Trenberth of NCAR. The first of these provides an update on where the scientific debate over the influence of global warming on hurricanes currently stands. The second responds to the latest attempt by the Wall Street Journal editorial page to foist fallacies about climate change upon its readers.

99 Responses to “Worth a Look”

  1. 1
    Rod says:

    To be pedantic, I think you mean “foist”, not “hoist”.

    Thanks as always for the valuable website.

    [Response: Thanks, yes indeed. Already fixed. -mike]

  2. 2
    Ark says:

    On Climate Change science, WSJ only trusts Northern Light experts.

  3. 3

    Ah, but their atom feed is badly broken, so this blog is not (yet) for me. (There is an RSS feed that works, but that has all the comments in it, and that is too much.) Argh.

  4. 4
    dhogaza says:

    Someone who’s very much on top of the population ecology of polar bears might want to wander over there to rebut Willis Eschenbach, who is pretty much the only respondent to this post.

    Willis has published in E&E in the past so you can guess where he’s coming form (polar bears have flourished during ice-free artic conditions in the past).

  5. 5
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    From the WSJ article (thank God I’m not a subscriber & can’t read the whole thing): “Climate change reared its [I think he means “ugly”] head again last week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney.”

    Yeh, well, you might expect that since Australia looks to be the first developed nation victim of GW, they might be talking about it. I read somewhere that they might be in for permanent drought in many parts, and I guess they could expect fiercer cyclones.

    RE the WSJ writer’s claim (from Trenberth’s piece) “that natural climate variations have been forgotten….” All I have to say is I’m thankful for the denialists bringing up the natural variations, of which as a layperson, I had not been very aware. But now thanks to them, I am totally aware that we are at the height of a natural warming trend — we’re in an inter-glacial period. So hypothetically, if there were no anthropogenic GHG emissions, we might be slated to start cooling down sometime in the geological time scheme.

    But instead we are using this warm period as a launching pad into a super-hot hysteresis period of runaway GW in which most of earth’s biota (including us humans) could die out….like the end-Permian extinction 251 mya, during which 90%+ died out. That of course was due to natural processes, but it certainly doesn’t follow that ergo we human can’t do the same. It seem we certainly can at least cause enough warming to jumpstart nature into a super extinction scenario via positive warming feedbacks (which the denialist are experts in — by their constant ranting of how warming causes GHG emissions from nature…Remember, you laypeople out there heard it first from the denialists!!! And I haven’t heard even one scientist dispute it…so that’s universally accepted.)

    So thanks to the denialists, I’m very aware now of even much greater threats from GW…..whereas before I had been thinking on scales less of GW harm — which would still be bad, bad enough so that we should do everything possible to mitigate it.

  6. 6
    Ark says:

    @Lynn. If you want to treat yourself to the full truckload of nonsense, you can find it at:

  7. 7
    Craig Allen says:

    Re: The APEC climate talks:

    There is a stark contrast between the dire climate scenario playing out here in Australia, and the lameness of our response as exemplified by the pathetic climate change statement that came out of the Sydney APEC meeting.

    This is the nub of the statement:
    “We agree to work to achieve a common understanding on a long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goal to pave the way for an effective post-2012 international arrangement.”
    … which is essentially meaningless.

    You can read the whole thing here.

    In the meantime, the outlook for the coming spring and summer are very discouraging, yet again. I returned to my home town a few months back to visit my father. It’s a little place in South Australia called Kimba (you can find it with a Google Earth search). It is pretty dry there with an historical average rainfall of 10 inches. But they haven’t been getting anywhere near that for a long time.

    This year the Australian Bureau of Meteorology predicted a reasonable likelihood of above average winter and spring rainfall because of the incipient La Nino building in the Pacific. So in common with many Australian farmers, the farmers of Kimba, who haven’t had a good year for a long time, each took a gamble, borrowed as much as they could from the banks, and planted every paddock they could. Unfortunately the rains haven’t materialised, yet again.

    I spent a sad day driving around with dad, stopping here and there to jump fences and walk into pathetic fields of struggling or dieing wheat. And as we drove he pointed out farm houses here and there telling me of the farmers who have committed suicide and the families that have broken up under the strain.

    There is talk of 25% of broad acre farmers in south east Australia going under. Much of Australia’s agriculture occurs in regions with very marginal climates. This means that even modest shifts in climate can have very bad consequences, and it appears that we are now seeing this play out.

    Some news reports on the situation:
    Calls for widespread desalination
    Dry spring delivers blow to wheat crop
    More SA farmers seek out drought relief
    Grim outlook for Lower Murray Lakes
    Murray Darling shortages could endanger crops permanently
    Murray water shortage worsens
    Drought killing Coorong ecosystem, says scientist

  8. 8
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re #7

    Craig, I feel your pain, if distantly.

    For the past few months I’ve been noting my local supermarkets (I live in the Silicon Valley, California) that a chunk of our citrus products originate in Australia. The question I invariably ask myself is “Why is Australia shipping its water here when they have so little of it there. Foolishness. For what it is worth, in terms of produce and, increasingly, in many products, I have adapted a think globally, shop locally mindset, and I wish more people would do so.

    Consider the carbon footprint of a bottle of , say, bottled water from France. Tons of it are shipped and otherwise transported in a fashion that isn’t doing any of us any good, either in terms of AGW, or pollution.

    Time to wake up. Years ago.

    On a simi-related note, National Geographic magazine’s new issue, due out in the next few days, contains one of the most beautifully conceived breakdowns of the effects of AGW. It’s a pullout map/graph containing several ways of looking at the problem were facing from an instructive, pratical perspective. Obviously this stuff will be old news to people who follow the climate issues, but if you want an excellent tool for illustrating the problem (after all, we’re often very receptive to visual information, particularly if presented well, and this is), this month’s installment rates up there with the best I’ve seen.

  9. 9
    Edward Greisch says:

    Reference: “Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt; science and the battle for public trust” by Elof Axel Carlson, 2006, Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory
    Page 7 of this book says something that is very startling to me: “Many students, who were willing to tell me so, shunned science and feared science. They looked on it as alienating, threatening to their religious beliefs, and capable of monstrous evil. They saw science as cold and aloof from the life in the humanities they preferred. . . . They feel that science has let them down through its bad outcomes.”
    I could say: “Same to the humanities and religion,” but there is something we have to deal with here. It is more basic than denial of global warming. It isn’t just irrational fear of nuclear electric power. It has to be pathology. Something is seriously wrong with Homo Sapiens as a species, or at least Americans. Evolution has gone very wrong. Just blogging on AGW and nuclear energy and a number of other subjects suddenly seems so much like trying to empty the ocean. Is there something the French are doing right that we need to copy? France has nuclear power without protest. If it is species wide, does anybody have a clue as to what to do?

  10. 10
    Terry Miesle says:

    Citrus fruits have more immediate problems than AGW. Our domestic citrus market might go the way of much of the worlds’ trees – dead.
    Citrus Greening is a bacterial disease, easily spread by an insect vector. That bacteria is, as yet, unidentified.

  11. 11
    Terry Miesle says:

    A more complete link comment about citrus greening.
    Sorry to hijack the thread….

  12. 12
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re #9

    “Many students, who were willing to tell me so, shunned science and feared science. They looked on it as alienating, threatening to their religious beliefs, and capable of monstrous evil. They saw science as cold and aloof from the life in the humanities they preferred. . . . They feel that science has let them down through its bad outcomes.”

    This reminds me of a telling quote by the late Robert A. Heinlein that more or less applies:

    “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are all the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    “This is know as “bad luck”.”

  13. 13
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re #9. Edward, the sentiments you are citing are really not new. C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” lamented the distrust of science even by those well educated in the humanities. And really, you can trace anti-rationalistic trends back through the Middle Ages and even to the ancient Greeks (Zeno’s paradox was such an assault on rationalism as a reductio ad absurdum.). To this our only reply is the success of science.
    Science is simply power–the power of reliable knowledge about how the world works. And nobody could seriously argue that science has failed to deliver reliable knowledge. Rather, to argue that science has failed is to say that humans cannot be trusted with power. It is a crisis of confidence in our competence and decency as a species. Well, that too is hard to argue with. However, we as a species have an ability rare among animals–to rise above our base natures and be good and wise. So, ultimately, we cannot even lay the blame for our failures at the door of human frailty. If people are saying they don’t trust science, they are saying they do not believe that THEY are worthy of power.

  14. 14
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #10, & “Citrus Greening is a bacterial disease, easily spread by an insect vector. That bacteria is, as yet, unidentified” & also re the disease killing off bees….

    I’m not a gambling person, but if I were, I’d place a small bet they eventually find out that GW had something to do with those diseases.

    For one, it seems these are new diseases, or at least becoming more harmful in this era of GW. For another thing, many diseases and problems are complex, involving many factors — one of which could be GW, since it is happening & we don’t know all its effect.

  15. 15
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Your questions are interesting to me Edward, I’ll put my grain of salt hoping it’s not too OT and won’t be dropped. As far as using nuclear energy goes, France did not have much of a choice, no other source was readily available. When the initial nuclear power thrust was developed, De Gaulle and his ideas of grandeur were still quite influential, so not having some level of autonomy regarding energy was unthinkable. The first oil shock helped that process and nuclear was presented not only as an indispensable savior but also as a pride generating achievement, with the motto “on n’a pas de petrole mais on a des idees” (we don’t have oil but we have ideas). It also helped that there was never a serious incident, and that the enormous reprocessing plant at La Hague was developed concurrently for waste management, although authorities never fully engaged in a serious debate about the problem of waste. All this did not, however, go without protest. Various groups have opposed nuclear under all its forms, including, unfortunately, the more novative ones (such as Super-Phoenix). New, later generation plants nowadays face stiffer opposition than in the past, partly due to Chernobyl, but protests do not normally stop anything from entering operation. It is also common for high school kids to go visit a nuclear plant, a very informative experience that I remember enjoying, despite being more into life sciences. Conservation was also heavily advertised on TV and other media, with campaigns like “la chasse au gaspi” (from gaspiller=to waste). For me, to this day, it is a reflex to turn the light off when living a room and I would never let an engine run if it looked like the vehicle was not going to move for the next 5 minutes.
    About the general attitude toward science, it may be a cultural thing, partially related to the enlightment period. Scientists, doctors and egineers enjoy great consideration. Engineers and people with technical backgrounds are trusted for high positions in public service, under the assumption that someone who knows about a subject is best able to run an administration related to that subject (this led to the rise of a class dubbed as “technocrats”). There are nowhere near the numbers of lawyers in government that is found in the US (where they seem to be everywhere). Education puts a heavy emphasis on hard academics, especially maths and science. I went through a scientific high school path and, by the time I graduated, I had to be conversant in the basics of calculus, probabilities, statistics, trigonometry, newtonian physics, electicity and magnetism, ondulatory processes, acid-base titration, oxidation/reduction, organic chemistry, principles of ecology and evolution, cellular biology, anatomy/physiology, world markets for wheat and oil, geography and sociopolitics of the US and the USSR (it was a while ago), basic economic theory, and I had to sustain a conversation about a text not known in advance in a foreign language. Teaching of French stopped at the equivalent of K11 and in the last year was replaced by introduction to major philosophical ideas. I remember talking with guys in C and D sections doing 3 dimensions calculus, matrices and mechanics that were much more involved than what I had, but they were not exposed to intricacies of hormonal regulation like I was. Other guys in technical sections had to be able to produce a fully usable, complex blueprint, which would be ready to go straight into the industrial process, all in the course of an 8 hrs exam with optional breaks. None of this was elective and we were tested at the end on every subject except phys.ed., which had a score based on overall performace through the year. From talking with American kids in US colleges, it seems that things are different here in high school. From my experience in US colleges, I would say that the biggest problem I see with the kids is their reading/writing/comprehension and critical thinking skills.

  16. 16
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Edward, Philippe et al. When Roy Schwitters was trying to build the ill-fated Superconducting SuperCollider (SSC), he was continually plagued by fact-finding commitees, Congressmen, etc. looking for an accounting of how funds were being spent to the last penny. It got to the point where he could barely get anything done. He probably didn’t help his cause when he referred to this as “The Revenge of the C Students,” but he certainly summarized the world we live in.

  17. 17
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #9 & 13, I’ve already said much about problems with the nature of scientific conservatism & reticence (I also teach that in my criminal justice methods course re that dang null hypothesis, etc.).

    Here is another complaint. Yesterday our Environmental Club on campus regretted it had not gotten it’s act together in time to participate in the sci/tech fair next week. I asked if the fair was doing anything on the environment, & the other adviser (a biologist) answered no, except maybe a concept car.

    I suggested that we could do an impromptu alternative sci/tech thing by showing WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR over in the Behavior Sci building, and the adviser got really angry & said the university wouldn’t allow that since big powerful industries (like car companies) contributed huge fund to the university’s sci & engineering programs (we are in the poorest county in the U.S., & the students in general are poor).

    I pretty much brooded the rest of the day about how truth and really helpful (to the enviro & econ) tech have to fall victim to the industrial powers that be. I just wonder how many other institutions of “higher learning” are also muzzled that way.

    Another problem with science and rationality (or the misconception that people are rational beings, like Mr. Spock), is that analysis (from the root meaning to cut up), loses something in its un-holistic perspective, a perspective that does not admit our affective or emotional side (which we can never totally suppress, except at some peril).

    I watched the TV film some 30 years ago THE DAY AFTER (about all out nuclear war), and afterwards a panel of “experts” were discussing it, talking about triage and civil defense, and how to deal with it (all a high rational discussion). Then this little philosopher on the end of the dais said with due emotion, “You don’t understand, we can’t let this happen in the first place.” My friend said he was the only one that made sense.

  18. 18
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Science is cultural. Dislike and distrust of science is cultural. In the days of “Yankee Ingenuity,” Americans were much taken with science. Even “Southerners” were appreciated Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and the markets provided by new fangled, Yankee mill equipment.

    I do not know when America lost this deep respect for science. But, by the time I was taking high school science in the 1960s, other kids in my class were asking, “Why do we need to take science?” The answer that the teachers at school gave them, was that they needed so many credits of “science” to get into college. That was the wrong answer. Those teachers had already forgotten the purpose of science.

    My Grandfather knew the purpose of science. He was a farmer with essentially no education, and yet, on many winter nights he drove 70 miles each way on dirt roads to the land-grant university at Hays to learn “scientific farming.” My Grandfather, said, “You need science so you know when to plant the crops, and you need to get it right, or you will not get a crop!” That is the right answer. We need science so that we understand what is going on in the world. His annual income depended on his being a “pretty-good climatologist.”

    I am sure that some of you have rolled your eyes when I wrote, “Go look in your Grandmother’s Journal for evidence of global warming.” But, in those early days on the Kansas plains, Grandmother’s Journal was the primary database of a pretty-good climatologist. That was science put to work on a daily basis. They systematically gathered data, organized and recorded that data, formed hypothesis about expected weather, tested the hypothesis by putting seed in the ground, and seeing if they got a crop of grain. That is science.

    How many profession climatologists are willing to bet this year’s income on the quality of their predictions? They do not want to be alarmist, so they do not come out and say, “It is likely to be too hot and dry for wheat this year, so plant something else.” On the other hand, the farmers now depend on the professional climatologists with their computers and satellites for climate projections. If, all the profession climatologists understate global warming, the loss of reputation to any one climatologist for understating global warming is very small, because everyone was understating the problem. However, if all the profession climatologists understate global warming, then society does not adequately plan for global warming. Then, all of society suffers.

    Do not worry about shouting fire when you smell smoke. It is better to raise the alarm and have 20 buckets of water when you only need one to put out the fire, than to have only one bucket of water, when you need 20 buckets of water to put out the fire.

    As for the deniers? Ignore them. Let them grow their own wheat – if they can. Maybe they will learn some science.

  19. 19
    Jack Roesler says:

    Re: #18: Aaron. The people who wrote this article wouldn’t roll their eyes upon hearing you say to go look in your Grandmother’s journal.;_ylt=AtIklldZZT0_x6tYOX5WlUVrAlMA

    As you’ll read, they’d suggest you look into your great, great, great Grandmother’s journal, or even farther back than that.

    This is a very informative article.

  20. 20

    [[Zeno’s paradox was such an assault on rationalism as a reductio ad absurdum]]

    Huh??? Zeno’s paradox was an example of rationalism. It was a logical argument, and entirely logically valid. It wasn’t sound because one of its premises was wrong.

  21. 21
    Jim Galalsyn says:

    OT, but I’d be very interested to hear comments on the new Crutzen paper:

    Biofuels could boost global warming, finds study

    Growing and burning many biofuels may actually raise rather than lower greenhouse gas emissions, a new study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen has shown.1 The findings come in the wake of a recent OECD report, which warned nations not to rush headlong into growing energy crops because they cause food shortages and damage biodiversity.

    Crutzen and colleagues have calculated that growing some of the most commonly used biofuel crops releases around twice the amount of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) than previously thought – wiping out any benefits from not using fossil fuels and, worse, probably contributing to global warming. The work appears in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and is currently subject to open review.

    ‘The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuel are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto,’ Keith Smith, a co-author on the paper from the University of Edinburgh, told Chemistry World. ‘What we are saying is that [growing many biofuels] is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse.’ …

  22. 22
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Galalsyn (21) — Biopact

    has a good analysis of this paper. Summarizing, current, so-called first generation, methods of producing ethanol are the culprits, except, I believe for sugarcane. However, biodiesel production is benign, as are a number of other bioenergy production products.

  23. 23
    Dan G says:

    Re: 15. A school trip to a nuclear facility had to have been more instuctional than my field trips as a kid in California — one trip to a Nike “Ajax” launching facility and one trip to the U.S.S. Midway (aircraft carrier). Farsightedness was not common then, and . . . well . . . it doesn’t appear to be, now either.

  24. 24
    Robert Edele says:

    Re# 22:

    Greenhouse gases aren’t the only issue with biofuels. Two other major ones are starvation (of humans) and environmental degradation. Most biofuels compete with crops (either directly or by using land that could be planted with crops) for feeding humans and, in a capitalist system, food doesn’t have to be very expensive to cause a major increase in starvation in poorer areas. Bringing more area under cultivation also leads to issues such as deforestation, water depletion, and agricultural pollution.

    A US vehicle has about a 100 kW motor at perhaps 20-25% efficiency. A human needs about 30 W also at 25% efficiency (2,400 kcal heat/day). That is a 3333-1 difference in energy usage (400 kW vs. 120 W). At full power, such a car will burn a day’s worth of food in about 26 seconds. At normal power levels, it will take less than 5 minutes.

  25. 25
    Mark A. York says:

    I’m sure Jennifer Marohasy is still mocking any connection between the Aussie drought and AGW. It’s hard to say why some chose to stick their heads in the sand. Even some Ph.D’s.

  26. 26
    Steve Reynolds says:

    22> Biopact has a good analysis of this paper.

    I did not see any analysis of the paper there…

    And I thought the paper said biodiesel was the worst offender.

  27. 27
    Alexander Ac says:

    There was an interesting reaction to Kevin Trenberth’s last piece. How is triggered (during the interglacials) the cooling – especially – how is the CO2 absorbed from the atmosphere. Could the probable feedback mechanism be the cooler oceans?

    Further, in a cooling world, one would suggest that overall impact of vegetation climate-feedback would be source, instead of sink. (In both, cold-to-warm and warm-to-cold “transition state” the vegetation should be carbon source, as a result of increased stress on vegetation). Maybe the phytoplankton could do better in a cooler oceans?? Any literature??

  28. 28
  29. 29
  30. 30
    Jim Galalsyn says:

    Re “biodiesel is the worst offender”:

    For rapeseed biodiesel, which accounts for about 80 percent of the biofuel production in Europe, the relative warming due to nitrous oxide emissions is estimated at 1 to 1.7 times larger than the relative cooling effect due to saved fossil CO2 emissions. For corn bioethanol, dominant in the US, the figure is 0.9 to 1.5. Only sugarcane bioethanol—with a relative warming of 0.5 to 0.9—looks like a better alternative to conventional fuels.

    Study: some first-generation biofuels could contribute to global warming because of N2O emissions

  31. 31
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #27, Lovelock’s REVENGE OF GAIA book mentions how ocean life prefers it cooler rather than warmer. So maybe a cooling ocean would support more plant life, which would absorb more C02. I remember the part about why warm tropical waters look so clear and pristine — because they have less life.

  32. 32
    James says:

    Re biofuels and greenhouse gas: There’s a very important phrase in the biopact link that seems to have been missed in all the reports I’ve seen.

    “N2O is a by-product of fixed nitrogen application in agriculture…”

    In other words, dumping a lot of chemical fertilizers on conventional crop fields produces lots of greenhouse gasses. Not exactly a surprise. But other sources of biomass that don’t need much fertilization or cultivation are GHG-negative. See for instance recent U. Minnesota research on native prairie biomass, discussed here:

  33. 33
    David B. Benson says:

    Robert Edele (24) — The people running Biopact are well-aware of the potential problem that you raise, biofuel competing with food and animal feed. They conclude that properly done, there is no competition. For example, Jatropha grows just fine under conditions too poor for crops. For another, sugar (mostly from sugarcane) is a glut on the world market so Brazil and increasingly, India, are using it to produce bioethanol.

    I hadn’t realized there was a problem with producing biodiesel from rapeseed, so thanks to all for bringing this to my attention.

  34. 34
    Ike Solem says:

    La Nina seems to have developed now: It’s interesting that every hurricane forecast is off by such a large amount – Gray and Klotzbach were predicting 17 named storms back in May, and we are now at 3. Is it the teleconnection to the Indian Ocean that Trenberth mentions in his post? The topic just seems to get more and more complicated. The above link also indicates that this late-developing La Nina is exhibiting some bizarre behavior unseen in previous La Ninas.

    [Response: Ike, those forecasts are for the total number of named storms. Three is the number just of the hurricanes so far. We’re at 10 total named storms (as many as we had all of last season) already, as of today w/ the new subtropical storm “Jerry”. And there are a few additional areas in the Atlantic that look like they could potentially develop over the next few days. We’re reasonably on track for own predicted 15 +/- 4 named storms, made prior to the storm season start, based in part on a predicted La Nina this fall/winter. Paper has since been published: Sabbatelli, T.A., Mann, M.E., The Influence of Climate State Variables on Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Occurrence Rates, J. Geophys. Res., 112, D17114, doi: 10.1029/2007JD008385, 2007, available as pdf here. -mike]

    The references to Australia’s once-in-a-lifetime drought in an AFP article are perhaps misleading. While such a drought may have been a once-per-century event in the past, such droughts should become far more common as the climate continues to warm.

    Regarding the N2O issue and Cruzen’s methodology:

    “The IPCC’s N2O conversion factor is derived using data from plant experiments. But Crutzen takes a different approach, using atmospheric measurements and ice core data to calculate the total amount of N2O in the atmosphere. He then subtracts the level of N2O in pre-industrial times – before fertilizers were available – to take account of N2O from natural processes such as leguminous plants growing in forests, lightning, and burn offs. Assuming the rest of the N2O is attributable to newly-fixed nitrogen from fertilizer use, and knowing the amount of fertilizer applied globally, he can calculate the contribution of fertilizers to N2O levels.”

    That calculation involves a lot of assumptions. It assumes knowledge of all sources and sinks of N2O except agricultural ones, for example. The IPCC’s experimental approach is far more reliable.

    The real problem here is that realistic life-cycle energy-carbon-nitrogen estimates for agricultural production in general, as well as for biofuel production, are not very well studied or understood, and are sure to be highly variable. Trying to assign a specific number to sugarcane or rapeseed or corn is a futile effort. A realistic study would focus more on trying to compare most efficient strategies to least efficient strategies, and would produce a range of estimates.

    For example, was coal used to distill the ethanol? Or was natural gas? Or was solar-wind generated electricity used? What was the irrigation source? Fossil fuel-powered groundwater pumps, or rainfall? That factor can vary from season to season.

    What is clear is that all agricultural and biofuel production should be shifted to fossil-fuel free renewable-energy based systems. Not much R&D work is being done in this area, unfortunately. For example, the Haber process for producing NH3 from N2 consumes large amounts of fossil fuel, esp. natural gas. There are certainly better ways to do that – bacteria can fix N2 using low-energy pathways, for example – but research is needed.

  35. 35
    Alexander Ac says:

    Thanks, I will check it! I have already written to NOAA’S paleoclimate – maybe they will have sth to say…

  36. 36
    David B. Benson says:

    Ike Solum (34) — See

    for a better way to produce fertilizers, according to the Dutch.

  37. 37
    John Mashey says:

    re: #24
    Familiarity with realities of farming might be useful.

    0) Peak oil happens in the next decade. Certainly, by 2100, some museum may well feature a barrel of oil as a curiosity of the past. I suspect there will not be 9B people on the planet, and maybe not even 6B. 3B would be better, although I’m glad I won’t be around to see how the world would get there.

    1) Poor subsistence farmers/herders grow what they can, and their life probably doesn’t change much. They’ll have never had the chance to go the petroleum route.

    2) Cash-crop farmers grow whatever they can that makes them the most money. According to WSJ:
    “Science 2005, US tobacco acreage has risen 20%, to about 355.000 acres.”
    Well, we certainly ahve to preserve tobacco :-)

    REALLY, if biofuels makes more money, that’s exactly what they’ll grow.

    3) Some American farmers already get paid *not* to grow crops.

    4) It is hard to figure out, in 2100, why anyone expects that low-value bulk crops are shipped very far, certainly not halfway across the world.

    5) The large farms of North America simply DO NOT WORK without fertilizer, tractors, and transportation to move the food from where it’s grown to where people live. Places like New York City DO NOT WORK unless they get food from somewhere, because Central Park really isn’t a big enough garden. Likewise, the rest of the really big cities in the world that depend on cheap petroleum to get food there are in for trouble, at least the poorer residents thereof.

    Some familiarity with Old Order Amish lifestyle might be useful … because that’s a much closer approximation to how more people are going to live…
    horse-lovers will be pleased.

    What good does it do to grow a field of wheat, if you can’t harvest it, and can’t ship it? Fertilizer will be a problem anyway, and in some areas, solar power and electric tractors will work, but it’s not obvious what to do about long-distance surface transport. I haven’t seen electric tailer trucks. Hydrogen? big maybe.

    But, in 2100, one can hope that someone has done some genetic tuneups on things like miscanthus and jatropha, and that *some* of the big farms are growing that, for power (to help replace the natural gas-fired plants), and for ethanol / biodiesel, so there’s enough fuel to get crops to buyers, and the infrastructure is not radically different on the distribution side. At least, some of these use much less fertilizer and water.

    Let’s just hope the world isn’t burning lots of unsequestered coal, or doing lots of CTL … because it’s going to get really warm then, which at least would end up eliminating the need to worry about feeding people in some of the big coastal cities.

  38. 38

    In Ccmment #17 Lynn says:”I suggested that we could do an impromptu alternative sci/tech thing by showing WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR over in the Behavior Sci building, and the adviser got really angry & said the university wouldn’t allow that since big powerful industries (like car companies) contributed huge fund to the university’s sci & engineering programs……….”

    My first reaction was that I’m glad that scientists like Hans Christian Oerstad, Michael Faraday,and James Clark Maxwell didn’t have to supress their findings, concerning the interrelationship of magnetism and electricity, for fear of losing the support of companys who manufactured steam engines at the time. We’d still be reading by candlelight.

    We’ve come to an intolerable situation if our schools of higher learning are becoming dependent on the same people as our political parties, namely big Pharma, big Oil,Big Auto, et al, to remain financially solvent.

  39. 39
    David Graves says:

    Mr. Benson should look at for a different view on biodiesel (sic). The New York Times has covered the effect of spreading oil palm platantions on tropical rainforests–destruction of forests biomass and biodiversity and oxidation of soil carbon. Benign? I think not. Let’s stop this madness before it gets going any further. Go over to for more information as well.

  40. 40
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #17 & 38 – I went to the sci/tech fair kick-off dinner last night & saw banners for the funding industries. Exxon Mobile was among the oil companies. No wonder when I arrived here in 2002 & mentioned global warming at an environmental club meeting, a student said his geology prof said it was all nonsense & that the earth was always changing, etc….

    All I can say is CIVIL SOCIETY IS DEAD — if people around the world are wondering what happened to America. There is no public. There is only private. Public, gov funding for this “state” university has dwindled to 12% of its income; it is dependent mainly on outside support. Even the social/behavioral sciences are now getting funding from the CIA. Why can’t we get funding directly from the state and federal governments? Why does it have to come via the CIA? Via industries which our government funds through tax-breaks & subsidies?

    There is precious less & less public or objective science and more & more private, perverted (to special interests) science. And the industrial powers that be have managed to co-opt speech by claiming environmental interests are “special interests,” while in truth they are the broadest of the general interests, like the ground on which we walk.

  41. 41
    Craig Allen says:

    Following up on my post (#7) about the impacts of the Australian drought; there was a program about it today on the ‘7:30 Report’ on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). You can read the transcript here.

    Another item on the news revealed that dairy farmers have begun selling their cows to abattoirs because there will not be enough fodder to get them through the summer and they are trying to beat the meat glut. I don’t think that this has happened before; dairy farms are in regions with higher, more reliable rainfall.

  42. 42
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I was using rationalism in perhaps a more modern scientific sense–rational analysis of perceptions ultimately resulting in understanding. Yes Zeno’s argument is rational. However, the paradoxes are clearly designed to show that rational analysis of our perceptions leads to contradictions–that we cannot trust conclusions based on rational analysis of our perceptions. See:

    In this sense, he is much more in the predecessors of anti-science rather than science.

  43. 43
  44. 44
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #13 [Ray] “If people are saying they don’t trust science, they are saying they do not believe that THEY are worthy of power.”

    They could be saying: “We don’t trust those who currently do, manage, organise and fund science”, perhaps?

  45. 45
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 40 (and previous)

    Discover mag’s State of Science in America issue is out and it contains a very unsettling survey on the subject of corporate influence on scientific research – “commercialized science”, as they term it. Just one of many articles in the mag that should give people pause.

  46. 46
    David B. Benson says:

    David Graves (39) — Yes, Biopact has considered this subject as well and found a paper, which they reviewed, suggesting that environmental organizations purchase and operate a palm oil biodiesel plantation! These are quite profitable and the enivronmental organization could use the profits to purchase and patrol sections of tropical rainforest. Sounds sensible to me.

    Here is another problem in Indonesia and elsewhere:

    In Indonesia the approximately 1300 coalfield fires are destroying the already set-aside nature reserves. Nothing to do with palm oil.

  47. 47
    Rod B says:

    I was not aware of Zeno (of Elea) and find the discussion interesting. One of the quotes in a post is, “…the paradoxes are clearly designed to show that rational analysis of our perceptions leads to contradictions–that we cannot trust conclusions based on rational analysis of our perceptions….”

    Sounds a lot like “impeccable logic doesn’t always lead to impeccable conclusions,” President JF Kennedy.

  48. 48
    pat n says:

    The latest Nature’s blog post (The Hurricane-Global Warming Debate, No Clarity Yet), and other hurricane/global warming articles since Katrina, have not been helpful in public education that rapid and dangerous greenhouse global warming is happening and people need to deal with this now by cutting their emissions and getting prepared for large increases in sea level.

    “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  49. 49
    Ron Durda says:

    Re Zeno posts. I’m trying to remember philosophy classes of almost 50 years ago, so I sure won’t be offended by corrections. Rod B (47)the connection of Zeno to trusting “…conclusions based on rational analysis of perceptions…” seems a bit tenuous considering the much bigger episto-ontological fish being fried by the Pythagorians (and their Reality composed of spatial parts known by the senses), and the Heraclitians (with their Reality which never really Is but instead is always “becomining”, i.e, an ever changing flux) and the Parmenidians (with their Reality that must be thought of as a unity that is unchanging and eternal “being” known by reason). Zeno’s paradoxes were intened to help his friend Parmenides by showing that the Pathagorian concept of reality ended in contradictions. Rod, it gets more interesting when you see how Plato and Aristole tried to resolve these issues and laid the foundations of our Western intellectual traditions. If you want more on this in a very readable fashion check Copleston’s A History of Philosophy Vol 1—it’s an oldie but was generally accepted. So, if I’m right about this stuff I’d have to suggest to Ray Ladbury (42) that Zeno wasn’t trying to show we couldn’t trust our rational analysis of our perceptions, but that instead we must trust our rationality and have a healthy skepticism about those sense perceptions. Ray, I hope this isn’t merely a distinction without a difference.

  50. 50
    John Carter says:

    Some technical questions (1) what is the best estimate of the global warming impact (100 year integration including estimated feedbacks) of 1000kg of CO2 emitted in 2007 given in MJ units? (2) How is this likely to vary in time (1890 – 2090)? (3) Solar energy: If solar voltaic or solar thermal plants are established in high albedo desert areas I would assume the short wave radiation intercepted is turned into electricity, out going longwave and sensible heat. All of which seem to me to contribute to global warming. Are there calculations that measure systems greenhouse efficiency taking into acount system albedo changes and how big are these impacts for PV placed on land surfaces with a 20% shortwave albedo and a 40% shortwave albedo?