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Is the ocean carbon sink sinking?

Filed under: — david @ 1 November 2007 - (Español)

The past few weeks and years have seen a bushel of papers finding that the natural world, in particular perhaps the ocean, is getting fed up with absorbing our CO2. There are uncertainties and caveats associated with each study, but taken as a whole, they provide convincing evidence that the hypothesized carbon cycle positive feedback has begun.

Of the new carbon released to the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, some remains in the atmosphere, while some is taken up into the land biosphere (in places other than those which are being cut) and into the ocean. The natural uptake has been taking up more than half of the carbon emission. If changing climate were to cause the natural world to slow down its carbon uptake, or even begin to release carbon, that would exacerbate the climate forcing from fossil fuels: a positive feedback.

The ocean has a tendency to take up more carbon as the CO2 concentration in the air rises, because of Henry’s Law, which states that in equilibrium, more in the air means more dissolved in the water. Stratification of the waters in the ocean, due to warming at the surface for example, tends to oppose CO2 invasion, by slowing the rate of replenishing surface waters by deep waters which haven’t taken up fossil fuel CO2 yet.

The Southern Ocean is an important avenue of carbon invasion into the ocean, because the deep ocean outcrops here. Le Quere et al. [2007] diagnosed the uptake of CO2 into the Southern Ocean using atmospheric CO2 concentration data from a dozen or so sites in the Southern hemisphere. They find that the Southern Ocean has begun to release carbon since about 1990, in contrast to the model predictions that Southern Ocean carbon uptake should be increasing because of the Henry’s Law thing. We have to keep in mind that it is a tricky business to invert the atmospheric CO2 concentration to get sources and sinks. The history of this type of study tells us to wait for independent replication before taking this result to the bank.

Le Quere et al propose that the sluggish Southern Ocean CO2 uptake could be due to a windier Southern Ocean. Here the literature gets complicated. The deep ocean contains high concentrations of CO2, the product of organic carbon degradation (think exhaling fish). The effect of the winds is to open a ventilation channel between the atmosphere and the deep ocean. Stratification, especially some decades from now, would tend to shut down this ventilation channel. The ventilation channel could let the deep ocean carbon out, or it could let atmospheric carbon in, especially in a few decades as the CO2 concentration gets ever higher (Henry’s Law again). I guess it’s fair to say that models are not decisive in their assessment about which of these two factors should be dominating at present. The atmospheric inversion method, once it passes the test of independent replication, would trump model predictions of what ought to be happening, in my book.

A decrease in ocean uptake is more clearly documented in the North Atlantic by Schuster and Watson [2007]. They show surface ocean CO2 measurements from ships of opportunity from the period 1994-1995, and from 2002-2005. Their surface ocean chemistry data is expressed in terms of partial pressure of CO2 that would be in equilibrium with the water. If the pCO2 of the air is higher than the calculated pCO2 of the water for example, then CO2 will be dissolving into the water.

The pCO2 of the air rose by about 15 microatmospheres in that decade. The strongest Henry’s Law scenario would be for the ocean pCO2 to remain constant through that time, so that the air/sea difference would increase by the 15 microatmospheres of the atmospheric rise. Instead what happened is that the pCO2 of the water rose twice as fast as the atmosphere did, by about 30 microatmospheres. The air-sea difference in pCO2 collapsed to zero in the high latitudes, meaning no CO2 uptake at all in a place where the CO2 uptake might be expected to be strongest.

One factor that might be changing the pressure of CO2 coming from the sea surface might be the warming surface waters, because CO2 becomes less soluble as the temperature rises. But that ain’t it, as it turns out. The surface ocean is warming in their data, except for the two most tropical regions, but the amount of warming can only explain a small fraction of the CO2 pressure change. The culprit is not in hand exactly, but is described as some change in ocean circulation, caused maybe by stratification or by the North Atlantic Oscillation, bringing a different crop of water to the surface. At any event, the decrease in ocean uptake in the North Atlantic is convincing. It’s real, all right.

Canadell et al [2007] claim to see the recent sluggishness of natural CO2 uptake in the rate of atmospheric CO2 rise relative to the total rate of CO2 release (from fossil fuels plus land use changes). They construct records of the atmospheric fraction of the total carbon release, and find that it has increased from 0.4 back in about 1960, to 0.45 today. Carbon cycle models (13 of them, from the SRES A2 scenario) also predict that the atmospheric fraction should increase, but not yet. For the time period from 1960 to 2000, the models predict that we would find the opposite of what is observed: a slight decrease in the atmospheric fraction, driven by increasing carbon uptake into the natural world. Positive feedbacks in the real-world carbon cycle seem to be kicking in faster than anticipated, Canadell et al conclude.

There is no real new information in the Canadell et al [2007] analysis on whether the sinking sink is in the ocean or on land. They use an ocean model to do this bookkeeping, but we have just seen how hard it is to model or even understand some of the observed changes in ocean uptake. In addition to the changing ocean sink, drought and heat wave conditions may change the uptake of carbon on land. The infamously hot summer of 2003 in Europe for example cut the rate of photosynthesis by 50%, dumping as much carbon into the air as had been taken up by that same area for the four previous years [Ciais et al., 2005].

The warming at the end of the last ice age was prompted by changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun, but it was greatly amplified by the rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The orbits pushed on ice sheets, which pushed on climate. The climate changes triggered a strong positive carbon cycle feedback which is, yes, still poorly understood.

Now industrial activity is pushing on atmospheric CO2 directly. The question is when and how strongly the carbon cycle will push back.

Canadell, J.G., C.L. Quere, M.R. Raupach, C.B. Field, E.T. Buitehuis, P. Ciais, T.J. Conway, N.P. Gillett, R.A. Houghton, and G. Marland, Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, doi 10.1073, 2007.

Ciais, P., M. Reichstein, N. Viovy, A. Granier, J. Ogee, V. Allard, M. Aubinet, N. Buchmann, C. Bernhofer, A. Carrara, F. Chevallier, N. De Noblet, A.D. Friend, P. Friedlingstein, T. Grunwald, B. Heinesch, P. Keronen, A. Knohl, G. Krinner, D. Loustau, G. Manca, G. Matteucci, F. Miglietta, J.M. Ourcival, D. Papale, K. Pilegaard, S. Rambal, G. Seufert, J.F. Soussana, M.J. Sanz, E.D. Schulze, T. Vesala, and R. Valentini, Europe-wide reduction in primary productivity caused by the heat and drought in 2003, Nature, 437 (7058), 529-533, 2005.

Le Quere, C., C. Rodenbeck, E.T. Buitenhuis, T.J. Conway, R. Langenfelds, A. Gomez, C. Labuschagne, M. Ramonet, T. Nakazawa, N. Metzl, N. Gillett, and M. Heimann, Saturation of the Southern Ocean CO2 sink due to recent climate change, Science, 316 (5832), 1735-1738, 2007.

Schuster, U., and A.J. Watson, A variable and decreasing sink for atmospheric CO2 in the North Atlantic, J. Geophysical Res., in press, 2007.

680 Responses to “Is the ocean carbon sink sinking?”

  1. 151
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Nick Barnes> I doubt very much that RC censored your post. They have been having intermittent problems with their software over recent months; comments often go missing without a trace. This happens to me about one comment in three.
    If they wanted to censor you, why would they allow you to post at all?

    OK, let’s test your hypothesis. I will post it again immediately after this post.

  2. 152
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Here is the repost:

    Steve Reynolds Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    4 November 2007 at 10:40 AM
    To 95, 114, 118 who all seem to think there is no support for the idea that putting resources into AGW mitigation could be bad for the poor, please look into the Copenhagen Consensus:

  3. 153
    David Bright says:

    Thank you for the response to my comments at 37, but your remarks do little to advance my understanding of the quoted carbon exchanges. The reply also leaves me wondering if the data given by UNESCO is suspect and if the real sensitivities could be dangerously misunderstood.

    Let me quote you the main figures from the diagram (Gt/y to atmosphere +, from atmosphere):

    1.Fossil fuel/cement +7.2
    2.Anthropogenic land use change +1.5, land sink -2.4
    3.Respiration/fires +55.5, net primary production -57.0
    4.Background ocean/atmosphere +70.6, reverse -70.0
    5.Anthropogenic ocean/atmosphere +20.0, reverse -22.2

    Why are exchanges at (5) quoted as already a large fraction of those at (4) and currently no less than 3 times those at (1)!?

    Sorry, but I cannot see how the picture given in the chart, if accurate, can be entirely irrelevant to atmospheric concentrations. The figure quotes the ocean sink as 38,000 Gt, slightly increased (by 135) through anthropogenic influences to date. However, it also quotes the atmospheric sink as originally 590 Gt, but now increased by 204, much more significant, of course. If the net exchanges at (4) and (5) were to become seriously positive for a variety of reasons, this would have a dramatic effect on the rate of atmospheric CO2 increase.

  4. 154
    Timothy Chase says:

    Re “I’ve been censored!”

    I had a big post Sunday. It didn’t go through. I am pretty sure that the software simply swallowed it. Two weeks ago three posts. Might have liked the post from yesterday to go through. Even more wish that I had saved it. I probably should always backup the big ones. Oh well. Might not even be the code, really, just the traffic. Sometimes I can’t get through, either.

    Anyway, unless someone is completely off-topic, I really doubt they will be “censored” although the impolite stuff might get edited. (That has happened to me a couple times.) But a contributor or two might actually refuse to post something if they think it is impolite through-and-through and getting personal (that’s happened in one case in the time that I have been here) or they have given someone several warnings about simply repeating the same arguments after several days after those arguments have been addressed. (I have seen the latter happen once as well.) But in either case you will know. You won’t have to guess.

  5. 155

    Why wouldn’t increased CO2 in the air lead to increased CO2 solubility in seawater due to Henry’s Law? The Henry’s Law effect is much stronger than temperature.

    Based on crude calculations I’ve made since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have increased the CO2 content of surface waters by something on the order of 5% or more. Such a change corresponds to a large amount of atmospheric CO2–on the order of 50, 100 ppm or more, depending on how thick surface waters are assumed to be. As CO2 levels rise why wouldn’t solubility follow and absorption continue?

    What am I missing?

  6. 156
    Daniel C. Goodwin says:

    Re 152 “Copenhagen Consensus”

    Speaking of disingenuous, the name Bjorn Lomborg seems familiar to me from somewhere…

    If only there were a rule that proven liars have to shut up for some decent interval. As it is, my feeble mind is overtaxed in remembering many names I’d prefer to forget.

  7. 157
    Majorajam says:

    Steve Reynolds,

    Frankly, there are many economic analyses of climate change out there, and the ones put forward by the Copenhagen Consensus, (which, coincidentally or not, fit nicely with Bjorn Lomborg’s preordained world’s view), are not impressive. More pertinently to this thread, they do not as is substantiate your claim about mitigation costs to the poor. Let me explain: there is no doubt mitigation will negatively impact economic growth rates in the short term. Given the high sensitivity that poor nations and individuals have to these, there would be an argument to be made. However, the overall effect on these is directly accounted for in any CBA, and the sensitivity holds throughout, so if a CBA passes, this is not a valid argument (only if a CBA didn’t pass, and people argued from an aesthetic point of view that we should go forward with mitigation to protect the environment, the argument would be valid).

    Outside of that- indeed, quite separate from it- is the degree to which mitigation spending creates greater welfare than development or malaria spending. It is manipulative and a red herring to suggest that somehow climate change needs to be pitted solely against charitable giving in the third world as the only two options for funds they artificially cap at $50 billion. Manipulative because charity spending, (as embodied by 3rd world development aid- note the last word), should have a higher threshold in a CBA than spending for one’s own benefits, (which very much describes mitigation), a distinction Lomborg is very much in the business of obscuring. A red herring because, if development spending passes a CBA given that higher threshold, bring it on. However, even if it were the case that such spending passed an appropriate CBA, and did so at a much higher utility than climate mitigation, that would not at all demonstrate that we shouldn’t spend on mitigation. It would rather mean that we should not spend the marginal wealth on the lowest welfare impact public good, and the Copenhagen Coalition does not have analysis to support that this is global warming mitigation (but yet they come to that conclusion anyway. Hmmm….).

    As an aside, all that takes their conclusions at face value- quite charitable given that neither the Copenhagen Consensus nor any other one has demonstrated the first part, let alone the second (that mitigation is last), with any analysis more substantial than a block of swiss cheese. Indeed, there is very little in the Copenhagen Group analysis which is analytically compelling- its solution is an artifact of its formulation, (see Jeffery Sachs criticism of the highly engineered $50 billion figure alluded to in the Wikipedia article, not to mention my point and the much larger issues with the type of CBA at the heart of the analysis).

    If you are interested in an economic review that is illuminating of its subject matter, you should look for one that recognizes the basic reality that we are not talking about charity with AGW mitigation, but investment in our own well being. One cognizant of the fact that there are more than two or three or five public goods for consideration in spending, and one that does not discard inputs simply because they are difficult to quantify- (Have we explicitly modeled uncertainty about climate sensitivity? About discount rates? How do we model damages in the distant dark reaches of a thick right tail? What is the statistical value of human life? And for center of the distribution modelers, what types of wars and terrorism is fought for or financed with petrocurrency? Can we expect there to be no geopolitical conflict as a result of climate change? How expensive are the agency issues associated with mitigation?). In short, you should look for an analysis that does not wear its science like a straight jacket. It turns out the difficult things to model are where the action is. When we arbitrarily discard them as the Coalition does, should we really expect the analysis to be valid?

    A true welfare analysis takes into account all costs and benefits, (mitigated damages but also mitigated risk and uncertainty), uncertainty about climate sensitivity, about stochastic discount rates, etc. To date, there has not been very compelling work in this area, but that is changing. You will realize when you read that that ‘skeptics’ criticism of the Stern Review is minor compared to the error any CBA that ignores uncertainty makes. And I’ll just keep posting that until someone picks up on it and realizes its pivotal significance.

    doghzaa, et al, you may not like economics, but it’s the only decision tool we have. Simple science is insufficient for policy decisions, and it’s highly unlikely dead reckoning leads to any better conclusions (and is clearly more at risk of manipulation). What we need are economists who don’t simplify their analysis to fit within their comfort level and tool set, something we’ve had far too much of to date, (but as noted, is changing).

  8. 158
    Matt says:

    #125 SecularAnimistOf course, most people are not going to shed tears over the prospect of Exxon-Mobil losing some of its multi-billion-dollar annual profits as income and wealth shift to manufacturers of wind turbines, photovoltaics, biofuel systems,

    Here’s a fun question: What % of XOM’s annual $400B in sales will be shifted to solar cell and other alt fuel manufacturers in the next 50 years? If you assume 50%, and if you believe that there will be a handful of leaders in the new space (typical in all segments of import), then that means that some solar cell company with a reasonable IPR position (take SPWR as an example) sitting at around $200M in sales today will be posting 20% YoY growth for the next 50 years to fill that void. It’d be unprecendented. But it also highlights how significant of an investment opportunity might exist.

    Of course, if it looks inevitable, then it’d be easy for XOM to simply buy a few of these alt energy companies. SPWR is only $10B right now. Even with a few years of solid growth they would still be easily purchased by an oil company.

    XOM won’t go away. They might morph into something else. But they won’t go away.

    I wonder, too, if oil turns into the cheap fuel for emerging nations in 50 years. If EU + US do indeed bite the bullet and push to do the right thing and get off of oil, then world demand drops and the price would fall to unprecendented levels, making it much more attractive for nations that are seeing their population adjust to standards similar to what the west is enjoying today (1.8 cars per family, 3 TVs per house, etc).

    If we opt to get world CO2 output to 1975 levels (arbitrary date, but presumably safe), and if we assume everyone in the world gets to produce CO2 equally (fair assumption for 2100 as India, China rise to current western standard of living), then per capita CO2 production in the US needs to drop by 96.3%. EU per capita CO2 production needs to drop by 92.5%.

    Simple conservation doesn’t get us there unfortunately.

  9. 159
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve Reynolds, So, do tell. When did the Copenhagen Business School take such a deep and abiding interest in the plight of the poor? Certainly, I find nothing among the “experts” to suggest any experience dealing with development issues–and squat when it comes to expertise in disaster mitigation, super-cat insurance or anything else associated with mitigation of risk.
    The Copenhagen Consensus may well have been a consensus, but it certainly was not a consensus of experts in any field relevant to climate change mitigation or international development.
    I take only two things away from what I’ve read of the Copenhagen Consensus:
    1)Mere agreement does not make consensus (which must be based on evidence and the opinions of experts in the relevant fields)
    2)Of course we need to take care that in our urgency to mitigate climate change, we do not embrace the false economy of sacrificing economic health and continued development.

    The climate mitigation vs. development dichotomy is a false one. They are both aspects of sustainability.

  10. 160
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #138 Joe Duck “My suggestion of a consensus among economists is based on my understanding of the work of Yale Economist Robert Mendohlson, a leader in this field who has extensively reviewed and published on this topic.”

    Joe, can you give a more specific reference to Mendohlson’s views on the comparison of mitigation and impact costs? I can’t find anything he’s written specifically on that. He does say (Mendohlson, Dinar and Williams Environment and Development Economics 11: 159–178
    “The distributional impact of climate change on rich and poor countries”):

    “This paper has shown that climate impacts have large distributional
    consequences. The bulk of the damages from climate change are likely
    to fall on the poor countries of the world.”

    In the same paper he advocates a carbon tax on all countries, the proceeds to be used to help poor countries develop. He does say:

    “Rather than focusing strictly on mitigation, the carbon program would modernize developing countries, making them more capable of taking care of themselves.”

    However, since the carbon tax would itself be a mitigation measure, he’s clearly not opposed to mitigation. I would oppose the authors’ suggestion that the World Bank (which is of course run by rich countries in their own interest) should administer this fund, but the idea of a global carbon tax hypothecated to helping poor countries grow economically is certainly worth considering – provided we add, as they do not, that this should also be oriented toward minimising any resultant increase in emissions from those countries.

  11. 161
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 155 Mike Alexander: “Why wouldn’t increased CO2 in the air lead to increased CO2 solubility in seawater due to Henry’s Law? The Henry’s Law effect is much stronger than temperature.”

    Henry’s law states that the concentration of a dissolved gas (Cx) is equal to the partial pressure of that gas (Px) times the solubility coefficient for that gas in a particular solvent (alphax; note that various symbols are use for the solubility coefficient):
    Cx = Px x alphax

    The solubility coefficient is determined by the temperature and chemical composition (e.g., salinity in the case of seawater) of the solvent. So, in the technical sense, solubility (i.e., solubility coefficient) is independent of the partial pressure. Some people use the term “solubility” when they really mean concentration – is that how you are using the term, Mike?

  12. 162
    Joe Duck says:

    Nick re: Mendohlson on Mitigation. I have a great email response from him about this – asking for permission to post it here. The gist is that the optimal approach starts with inexpensive mitigations and scales these up over time as technologies and effectiveness increase.

  13. 163
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Steve cites Lomborg in 152:

    Citing Lomborg is hazardous to your argument. I’ve had live, face-to-face discussion with him. I can assure you, he doesn’t know the first thing about ecosystems, feedback systems, or climate science.
    When I asked him about “fishing down the food web,” he said that this is simply removing the oldest fish from the population. My jaw literally dropped at his ignorance.

    To my knowledge, he has never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Sincere nor not, if you follow him, you will be led astray.

  14. 164
    Joe Duck says:

    Re Jim’s concerns: have you read the Copenhagen Consensus material regarding how to prioritize spending? Any specific complaints about how they order global priorities?

  15. 165
    Majorajam says:

    Joe Duck,

    Make sure and ask him if his “optimal approach” is optimal under explicit recognition of uncertainty in the climate sensitivity scale parameter and discount factor (indeed, what method of discounting he is employing, or details and assumptions of his “optimal” strategy full stop). It is also worth noting that Mendelsohn is on the record as claiming that North America and northern Europe will benefit from global warming, to say nothing of this beauty:

    “If you look at what’s going to happen to the world as a whole, there’s going to be huge sections of the world which will benefit greatly and other sections of the world which will get damaged,” he said. “When you add the two together what you find is that for the world as a whole, the benefits are offsetting the damages.”

    …which makes it rather difficult to justify spending on emissions.

    I wonder if the scientist visitors to this blog thread might have a go at that floating grapefruit for our friend Joe.

  16. 166
    Majorajam says:

    And Joe/Steve, if you like Mendelsohn, you should see his interactive map of which countries/demographic is getting hammered, by global warming. Indeed, Northern Europe and North America are doing splendidly, (assuming of course those ice sheets hold and you don’t live by the coast if they don’t!- and of course that heat stress doesn’t effect water supply- and that Cardio Vascular disease is still a leading killer, i.e. stasis in medical technology and infectious disease agents, of course etc. etc. etc.), while Africa is looking at massive economic contraction. Good thing most of the world’s poor live in the middle to high latitudes… err…

  17. 167
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Joe’s comment at 164, Lomborg and I locked horns during his Copenhagen Consensus presentation at Microsoft Research a couple of years ago.

    My biggest complaint was that he completely neglects feedbacks among his various solutions; what good will it do us to save millions of people from malaria and AIDS, only to see them die a few years later from climate disaster? And what if climate change also causes the spread of diseases? He called that a “tertiary effect” and dismissed it.

    But mostly I was there to challenge him on his Skeptical Environmentalist claim that “species extinction is a problem, not a catastrophe.” He stood by it — to him, a board-foot of wood is a board-foot of wood, whether it comes from the Amazon Rainforest or a cheap pine-monoculture tree farm. I tried to talk to him about loss of ocean biomass to factory trawlers, longlines, shark finning, etc., and that’s when he made his amazingly ignorant assertion about fishing down the food web.

    Since he doesn’t have the first clue about ecosystems, why should we believe he has a better grasp of economics?

  18. 168
    Hank Roberts says:

    > he doesn’t have the first clue about ecosystems,
    > why should we believe he has a better grasp of economics?

    Is any coursework in ecology required for a degree in economics these days?

  19. 169
    David B. Benson says:

    “Floating grapefruit” — How apt a remainder of the perilous state of the oceans. Which, amoung other problems, are becoming less basic, more acidic. Which does bad things to the base of our food chain.

    The food chain for all the people and other living creatures on the face of the earth.

    Disclaimer: While I am a visiting (retired) scientist here, none of this remotely relates to my specialty. However, this is eighth grade general science, nothing deep or difficult.

  20. 170
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Hank’s question: “Is any coursework in ecology required for a degree in economics these days?”

    An important question. To my mind, both disciplines would benefit from greater integration.

    But as far as Lomborg is concerned, he has neither an environmental nor an economics background; he’s a statistician, and afaik, he remains unpublished in any peer-reviewed journals.

  21. 171
    Joe Duck says:

    Note to the moderators: I’d recommend you consider a “whitelist” for commenters who have posted nothing abusive – hopefully that is most of the folks participating here? People think they are getting censored when I think they are just delayed somewhat irratically via the moderation queue and the quirks of wordpress blogs.

    Everybody should note that moderated comments may appear earlier in the comment sequence.

    Majorajam: Disagree with most of your note above – Mendohlson’s economic qualifications in this area are almost unmatched. However you are correct to note that the discount rate is a key factor and unfortunately this single factor changes one’s conclusion about how to proceed. Stern in UK, for example, used different assumptions about discount rates and concluded early and massive mitigation is called for. He noted it would have a large initial cost in lost GDP but felt this was justified in terms of preventing giant economic losses in future. However, Mendohlson’s treatments appear to be more in line with mainstream economics though I don’t claim much expertise in this field. My B.S. is Botany, MS Social Sciences.

  22. 172
    Rod B says:

    dhogaza (140), did I get this right? Are you asserting that climatologists are better at figuring out economic things than economists are? I also think the average economist’s forecasts are pretty poor. But are scientists, or proponents like on RC that predict sanguine economies all around, better?

  23. 173
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE the poor and their needs, I think it really behooves us to cut our GHGs, if not to save the earth and reduce GW harms to the poor (& to us & future generations), then at the very least so as to save money, so we can donate it to the poor. People ought to put their GHG cuts (and the money they reap from them) where their mouth is.

  24. 174
    Majorajam says:


    Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re any kind of environmentalist, even a skeptical one, it’s considered a good idea to be less than monumentally ignorant of ecology. Saying that, I don’t think that was your man’s point. That rather seems to be why should we make the effort to evaluate the work of someone given to making patently false statements outside or inside their field of expertise in any context. I have no reason to doubt Jim’s testimony, however we certainly don’t need to take it on faith. There are literally dozens of instances where Lomborg is on the record taking liberties with the evidence, and his example is not in the least bit out of character with the remainder of them.


    As with the Copenhagen Coalition, Mendolson’s assumptions account for his results, and their validity is what I was getting at with my post to you. I was hoping you’d get a response on the board from Mendohlson to my queries. You could ask it differently too- at what cumulative probability do large scale damages from ice sheet melt enter into your estimate of mitigation benefits? How valid would results be given a climate sensitivity of 7 degrees centigrade? Things like this. From the Weitzman paper people seem intent on ignoring, “What we do know about climate science and extreme tail probabilities is that planet Earth hovers in an unstable climate equilibrium, chaotic dynamics cannot be ruled out, and all eighteen current studies of climate sensitivity cited by IPCC4 taken together are estimating on average that P[S>6ºC] = 5% [i.e. the probability that climate sensitivity is greater than 6ºC is roughly 5%].” You could quote him that and ask him whether his analysis suffers from ignoring what mainstream climate science is telling us about possibilities.

    You might also want to ask yourself if the idea that a changing climate would have a net zero effect on aggregate welfare seems reasonable to you prima facie, and whether someone who starts out by arguing such a thing with confidence truly has ‘unrivaled credentials’ or whatever you’re trying to make stick here. There is plenty of evidence of some rather dire ramifications of global warming, but more to the point, presumably we’re all most well adapted to our current climates, meaning changes imply at least the cost of realigning that adaptation, no? This highly basic observation implies net costs. You should also familiarize yourself with the strength of the assumptions needed to make any of these CBA’s go, and hold your nose when you do as they’re not pretty. In the case of an assured climate sensitivity of 3ºC that matters greatly (and more so the interest rate, about which you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Stern, especially considering your endorsement of the Cope Coalition). At thick tailed probabilities of very large climate sensitivities, these assumptions disappear underneath “fear of ruin”. That matters too.

    As far as what I’ve said that you’ve disagreed with, and the only thing that comes to mind is the effect of mitigation on the unwashed poor, I suggest you see Mendohlson about that as well. You can’t just use him selectively for confirmation of your prejudices- he’s either a legend in his field beyond the skepticism of mere mortals, or not.

  25. 175
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Joe Duck, the problem with Robert Mendelsohn’s argument is that the mitigation must be sufficient to avoid the majority of the adverse consequences, and the climate has positive feedbacks that will kick in at some uncertain level of CO2. If we exceed this level, all the mitigation will have been in vain. Risk mitigation requires that we pursue mitigations in order of maximum net benefit (net, because we have to consider cost). But above all else, we must pursue sufficient mitigation to be effective.
    Mendelsohn et al. do not have a good understanding of climate consequences. No one does. However, an unknown risk is not a risk you can ignore, as Mendelsohn does. His recommendations are tantamount to an economist in the midst of hyper-inflation suggesting that the government cannot tighten the money supply, because it would be bad for the economy.

  26. 176
    dhogaza says:

    dhogaza (140), did I get this right? Are you asserting that climatologists are better at figuring out economic things than economists are?

    No, but economists have a discouraging tendency to assume that environmental factors have zero value (in economic terms), which leads to a huge bias against spending any money whatsoever to minimize environmental harm.

  27. 177
    J.C.H. says:

    The Weyerhaeuser chair in a management school is a mainstream economist?

  28. 178

    “Is any coursework in ecology required for a degree in economics these days?” (Re:168).

    I don’t know, Hank, but two semesters of economics were required for a bachelors degree in engineering way back when. We used a book by Paul Samuelson to give an idea of how far “when”. It’s kind of like chicken soup. It can’t hurt. Since it’s used as a significant factor in many areas of civil engineering from economical design of structures to equitable distribution of water resources, it helps to be on speaking terms with their vocabulary,as well as some basic principles.

  29. 179
    Fernando Magyar says:

    “Is any coursework in ecology required for a degree in economics these days?” (Re:168).
    Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at The University of Vermont might be a good place to start.

  30. 180
    Matt says:

    #163 Jim Galasyn: To my knowledge, he has never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Sincere nor not, if you follow him, you will be led astray.

    And yet when peer reviewed stuff comes out that folks don’t like, they pooh-pooh that too :) Witness Roe and Baker. And of course, when stuff comes out that isn’t peer reviewed that people like, even when they get some stuff wrong, the wagons circle again. “Well, he’s mostly right! And he’s not even a scientist! Sure there’s a bit of alarmism in there, but there HAS to be. THE MAN IS AWESOME!!!”

    But mention Lomborg and people’s eyes cross in rage. No slack for him!

    The guy has published 500+ pages of very technical stuff, with plenty of pointers to the actual studies. He’s readily accessible, interviews often, and is happy to discuss in any forum (can’t say that for Gore). He’s not a scientist, but I think he’s done a really fair job of researching the distilling the info. Mistakes? Of course. Show me a 500 page book with nearly 3000 footnotes that doesn’t make mistakes.

    He was particularly effective last go round, and came across as a lone voice of reason amidst widespread hysterics in the NY Times interview ( And again, I think that is what rub folks the wrong way.

    Lots of folks like to talk about accelerated famines, plagues, etc, but the largest body of consensus on this just doesn’t really support that. The IPCC isn’t even really all that scary on water level rises.

    Now, back to extinction that you brought up with him. Read Lomborg’s section on biodiversity in SE to get some context. Incredibly, it’s full of scary predictions from the last 40 years. In 1979, we were told we were losing 40,000 species a year. Gore still cites that number. Harvard biologist O. Wilson claims 27,000 and 100,000 per year. Ehrlich, coming off his several other spectacular predictions, claimed in 1981 we lose 250,000 species per year. And in case you weren’t scared by that, Ehrlich claimed in 1981 that all species would be gone between 2010 and 2025. And then Lomborg cites studies showing there are 1,600,000 known species (estimates are between 2M and 80M species total), adn 1033 known extinctions since 1600.

    He explains that if a species lasts 1-10M years, with 1.6M species we’d expect to see 2.5 natural extinctions per year, and takes things from there. Very sane reasoning. Overall, I thought a very strong chapter. What specifics did you take issue with?

  31. 181
    Hank Roberts says:

    He’s boring.

  32. 182
    dhogaza says:

    And yet when peer reviewed stuff comes out that folks don’t like, they pooh-pooh that too :) Witness Roe and Baker. And of course, when stuff comes out that isn’t peer reviewed that people like, even when they get some stuff wrong, the wagons circle again. “Well, he’s mostly right! And he’s not even a scientist! Sure there’s a bit of alarmism in there, but there HAS to be. THE MAN IS AWESOME!!!”

    Well, yes, when a non-scientist presents the consensus position in science, we may say “he’s awesome!”

    And why not?

    And when a maverick gets a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, which contradicts the commonly-accepted consensus position, we may say “we think he’s wrong”.

    Why do you have a problem with that?

    But mention Lomborg and people’s eyes cross in rage. No slack for him!

    Is there something special about his name that makes you think this is wrong? People publish rational defenses of astrology and the like all the time, which have no basis in the real world.

    Are we supposed to cut them slack, too, even if they’re scientifically ignorant?

    The guy has published 500+ pages of very technical stuff

    So have many Astrologists. Does this mean they’re right?

    And if they publish 1000+ pages of “very technical stuff”, does this mean that astrology is twice as right as Lomborg’s anti-science crusade?

    And yes, you’re boring, as pointed out above.

  33. 183
    Michael Mott says:

    Having waded through most of the posts this evening, my question is, who of the decision makers are reading any of this? by that I mean local municipal politicians. These are the folk who affect real change in what happens in most of our communities. I see a real disconnect between what you the scientist are discussing and what the local politicians are concerned about.

    The canary in the coal mine just doesnt cut it any more! how can you get your message to the people that make the day to day decisions about policy that determine what goes on on a local level count? It is all very well to discuss esoteric nuances of AWG and of CO2 problems, meanwhile we have armies of lunatics lining up at Tim Hortons drive throughs with their gas guzzling SUVs waiting to buy a cup of coffee!!!! Drive throughs shoud be illegal anywhere! these are areas that local politicians have some clout. I live in a place where they think that coal bed methane is a good thing for the economy and that coal liqudation and gasification is going to save the planet! We have a long way to go folks!

    Iam working on a passive solar home and am building it myself. I hope I am not too late!


  34. 184
    Matt says:

    #181, #182 Hank and dhogaza: You’re boring

    And yet you bite every time :)

    The key point, dhogaza, is that Lomborg is a slightly more technical Al Gore. Both rely on scientists to do their analysis. Both do a very good job of acting as a public face on each of the arguments. Because they aren’t scientists, I’m not sure it’s fair to hold one to a higher standard than the other as most here do. I do think Lomborg brings some very unique viewpoints that are worth thinking about to the table. It’s rather refreshing, because few are offering solutions. The scientists are all very good at saying “look how screwed we are”, the engineers are all good at saying “just tell us what to bet big on and we’ll make it cheap and safe”, the finance guys are ready to back anything that will make money, the environmentalist wackos are all using this to push their same tired agendas that have indirectly caused us to remain stuck on coal, and the public policy folks are all very good at…at…well…who knows. Fanning the flames I guess.

    So let’s recap:

    1) Lomborg’s media impressions are indeed damaging to the cause
    2) Lomborg is deemed credible by the mainstream media (WSJ, NYT)
    3) Leading scientists won’t debate Lomborg
    4) Untold websites and hours are spent attempting to refute Lomborg

    Hmmmm. I don’t think the 4 assertions above slightly re-phrased are true for astrology. Perhaps you need to re-think your argument or concede that he’s quite effective, and probably more accurate with the science than many here would like to admit. Certainly more accurate with the science than Al Gore was in AIT.

    And if they publish 1000+ pages of “very technical stuff”, does this mean that astrology is twice as right as Lomborg’s anti-science crusade?

    Let’s not forget the number of math errors that have slipped through 12 page peer reviewed articles, OK? The point stands that Lomborg’s book was well researched and covered a lot of ground. Expect there to be errors.

  35. 185
    Joe Duck says:

    What specifics did you take issue with?
    Matt that is an excellent question. These are complex issues and thus it’s best to identify a specific “falsehood”.

    what good will it do us to save millions of people from malaria and AIDS, only to see them die a few years later from climate disaster?

    Jim this answer seems to suggest that “millions will die” in a few years from climate change? This is not a reasonable assertion. Millions die every year right now, but climate change has only a modest impact on the number of human deaths per year. The type of climate impacts that would be required to kill millions are very unlikely, which is why many feel we should carefully weigh the costs and benefits of mitigation vis a vis other resource allocations.

    Ray – No, I don’t think most economic analyses ignore uncertainties. They would tend to assign a probability range to various scenarios to predict outcomes. I see it as fundamentally important to determine the likelihood of catastrophic climate change because this will help us determine optimal resource allocation. Many here at RC seem to think catastrophic change is looming, but reading IPCC I come to a different conclusion – climate change will be modest over the next 100 years, and very modest during the next 10. Hansen and some others suggest more problems than IPCC, but he does not seem to reflect the consensus in the climate field.

  36. 186
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re: Jim Glaswyn on Lomborg. I’m no fan of Lomborg’s, but he does have at least one refereed publication, unless there’s another B. Lomborg out there:

    Lomborg, B. 1996 “Nucleus and Shield: The Evolution of Social Structure in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma” American Sociological Review 61, 278-307.

  37. 187
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re: 180 (Matt): “And then Lomborg cites studies showing there are 1,600,000 known species (estimates are between 2M and 80M species total), adn 1033 known extinctions since 1600.”

    Lomborg’s stress on “known extinctions” alone shows he is either ignorant or mendacious (or indeed both). We know about the extinction of conspicuous terrestrial organisms – mostly birds and mammals – and often make considerable efforts to prevent extinctions in these groups. Most species live in tropical forests. Most are small (a large proportion are beetles), many appear to have very restricted ranges. The actual number of extinctions since 1600 is very hard to calculate, but will inevitably be far more than the number of known extinctions.

  38. 188

    James Lovelock has published more than just one paper. Once all his qualifications have been listed by the chairman, then I think you will find what he has to say is far from boring. See the Realtime webcast at:

  39. 189
    J.A.L. says:

    ¿What would be the consequences of Pinatubo eruption in oceanic CO2 sink?

    ¿What would the consequences of a high recurrence of El Niño events in Oceanic CO2 sink, and what’s more if they are the strongest in last half century?

  40. 190
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Matt, Actually, the 4 points you raise about Lomborg apply to as well to astrology:
    1) Lomborg’s media impressions are indeed damaging to the cause–pseudoscience is always damaging to science
    2) Lomborg is deemed credible by the mainstream media (WSJ, NYT)–looked in your local paper lately? Bet you find horoscopes
    3) Leading scientists won’t debate Lomborg–they won’t debate astrologers and other pseudoscientists either
    4) Untold websites and hours are spent attempting to refute Lomborg–ever hear of James Randi?

    Lomborg is a pseudointellectual blinkered ideologue whose biases against the left (which may be justified to some extent in Denmark) cause him to embrace uncritically all the positions of the right. Your assertion that he has a better grasp of the science than Gore is risible. Gore got most of the science right. Lomborg got almost none of it right–and what is more, he’s proud of that. I rate his intellect and argument style only slightly higher than Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter (or Al Franken, for that matter).

  41. 191
    Ron Taylor says:

    Why does Lomborg scare me? Because he IS so effective – a soft smile, gently carressing everyone on the cheek, while in a calm voice murmuring, “There, there, everything is going to be okay,” as he hands us his refreshing glass of Koolaid. Oh, it is so nice to be gently awakened from a nightmare! Unless when you really wake up, you realize it was not a nightmare at all, but reality.

  42. 192
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE “the probability that climate sensitivity is greater than 6ºC is roughly 5%” (#174). Sometimes how we present the stats is important, so one-in-20 chance seems a bit more startling than 5% (I’ve bet on 1-in-20 longshots before).

    So, you’re working in your garage and it’s cold, so you debate whether to turn on your car engine & heater, or your electric heater (which is powered by 100% wind-generated electricity and costs less to run than the car), AND there’s a 1-in-20 chance you will die from the carbon monoxide from the car. Which would you choose? And, oh yeh, the money you save from using the electric heater over the car heater you can send to the poor to help prevent malaria and death!

    RE #176 & economics, I think that Adam Smith classical and neoclassical economics is inappropriate and grossly deficient for a globally warming world. I’ve written much here over the years on this topic, so I won’t get into it, except to say that, yes, one’s diamonds and gold won’t be harmed much by GW, only cheap stuff, like food, will be greatly harmed. So the economy should do just fine. Question is, will there be people around to enjoy that fine economy.

    And then there is the booming business in the health and rebuilding sector that should really do quite well.

  43. 193
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Joe Duck asserts that “The type of climate impacts that would be required to kill millions are very unlikely.”

    What about widespread, rapid desertification would make you think that? One season of global crop failure should do the trick. The UN reports that global grain storage has been declining for years; it’s estimated we have a 57-day supply.

    The Holocene is an unusually stable climate regime, and it is this stability that makes agricultural civilization possible. I’ll take the opposite of your position: The type of climate impacts that would be required to kill millions become increasingly likely as we drive the planet away from the Holocene climate optimum.

  44. 194
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Matt concurs with Lomborg: “species extinction is a problem, not a catastrophe.”

    Do you also agree with Lomborg’s assertion that “fishing down the food web just means removing the oldest fish from the population?”

    Biologist Kåre Fog takes Lomborg’s Chapter 23 to task:

  45. 195
    Hank Roberts says:

    And to be clear, it’s Lomborg I find boring, not you Matt.

  46. 196
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    What about widespread, rapid desertification would make you think that? One season of global crop failure should do the trick. The UN reports that global grain storage has been declining for years; it’s estimated we have a 57-day supply.

    It wouldn’t even need to be a global failure…just the failure of a region, and very quickly market forces could – and most likely would – act in such a way as to limit the delivery of key grain supplies to a number of countries that depend upon them.

  47. 197
    Matt says:

    #187 Nick Gotts: Lomborg’s stress on “known extinctions” alone shows he is either ignorant or mendacious (or indeed both).

    He’s neither. He’s simply citing studies 5 studies (Baillie+Groombridge 1997, Walter +Gillet 1998, May 1995, Reid 1992) showing what others have studied to date. In the chapter he’s on a path working up to show just how unfounded the “we lose 40,000 species per year” claim from Gore is, along with the “we lose 250,000 species per year” claim from Ehrlich.

    Incredibly, he traces the 40,000 figure to Myers “hazarding a guess” at a conference in 1974. From there it took a life of its own. And of course, Ehrlich was never one to be outdoomed. Of course, the point of the chapter is that for a long time now certain scientists have been telling us we’re on edge of losing nearly everything as we wipe out species at an alarming rate. And computer models have been built to say it is so.

    Again, a very rational and sane treatment.

    I will note that in the chapter Lomborg failed to show a scientific source of the 40,000 and 250,000 figures. If you know of one, then perhaps Lomborg ignored it and I’d be interested in knowing that. If you don’t know of one, and if you haven’t read the chapter, then there’s not much here to debate.

  48. 198
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 184:

    So let’s recap:

    1) Lomborg’s media impressions are indeed damaging to the cause
    2) Lomborg is deemed credible by the mainstream media (WSJ, NYT)
    3) Leading scientists won’t debate Lomborg
    4) Untold websites and hours are spent attempting to refute Lomborg


    Just to echo and reinforce Ray in 190:

    Substitute the Discovery Institute or Intelligent Design Supporters or Creationists for “Lomborg” and you have a description of what has been going on in the Evolution/Creationism wars for years now.

    This type of argument is empty rhetoric, a question beg that assumes that if someone doesn’t do something to address Lomborg’s arguments in particular forums or that Lomborg is being excluded from consideration or forums he somehow has scientific legitimacy.

    This is a bogus proposition. Lomborg’s SCIENTIFIC legitimacy rests upon the work he produces, and the manner in which he provides it for examination, not on how he is perceived in the media. And as been discussed ad nauseum, Lomborg’s scientific legitimacy appears, at best, questionable to an extreme.

    One other point – here again you have an instance of a single individual that opponents of a view flock to as having the “last word”, as being the one with the true answer, when the overwhelming majority of people with actual knowledge in the subjects that this individual holds forth on (knowledge, btw, attained from years of study and field work) somehow have less credibility in their conclusions.

    If you claim you wanted to discuss things from a reasonable, rational perspective, this understand might give you some pause.

  49. 199
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 183:

    Having waded through most of the posts this evening, my question is, who of the decision makers are reading any of this? by that I mean local municipal politicians. These are the folk who affect real change in what happens in most of our communities. I see a real disconnect between what you the scientist are discussing and what the local politicians are concerned about.


    Check out Burlington, Vermont.

    In Chapter 9 of “Field Notes from a Catastrophe”, Elizabeth Kolbert discusses their efforts to reduce consumption. While there were initial successes, the consumption continues to climb.

    The upshot? While municipal efforts are helpful, it is unlikely nothing short of nationally coordinated efforts are going to have a long-term effect on AGW.

  50. 200
    Mary C says:

    Re 183. What’s amazing, really, is exactly how much climate mitigation action is already taking place not only in the absence of leadership and commitment from the federal government but also in the face of media-supported efforts at denial and obstruction promulgated by vested interests. Much of the local and state activity seems, unfortunately, to be under the radar, with little attention and coverage so that most people, including many posting here apparently, are quite unaware of even a fraction of what is happening. Take a look at:

    “Regional commitment to reducing emissions – Local policy in the United States goes some way towards countering anthropogenic climate change” –

    “What’s Being Done…In the States” –

    “Local, State and Regional Action to Address Global Warming” –

    “State & Regional Programs to Address Global Warming” –

    State and Regional Climate Actions Table –

    U.S. Green Building Council: Government Resources –

    Democratic Energy: Communities and Government Working on our Energy Future –

    Post Carbon Cities: Preparing local governments for energy and climate uncertainty –

    Conservation Law Foundation: Advocacy for New England’s Environment –

    The U.S. Conference of Mayors: Mayors Climate Protection Center –
    Note that a “Mayors Climate Protection Summit” took place in Seattle last Thursday and Friday. An article on a speech by Bill Clinton can be found at

    State /Energy Alternatives: Renewable resources, technologies, and policies for states and communities –

    Mayors for Climate Protection –

    The Top 10 Green Cities in the U.S.: 2006 –

    The SustainLane 2006 US City Rankings –

    (There are a few other city rankings that can be found.)

    Not a governmental organization, Green Energy Ohio is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting environmentally and economically sustainable energy policies and practices in Ohio. Their home page at has a list of “Top News for Clean Energy in Ohio,” which includes information on local and state governmental actions.

    This one is not from any governmental organization, but from the socially active Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It’s also kind of interesting in regards to the opinions of people who don’t just talk about helping poor people, but who practice what they preach (unlike some who have been cited here). See “Threat of Global Warming/Climate Change: 2006 Statement of Conscience” –