RealClimate logo


Technical Note: Sorry for the recent unanticipated down-time, we had to perform some necessary updates. Please let us know if you have any problems.

Wired Magazine’s Incoherent Truths

Filed under: — raypierre @ 15 June 2008

Many of our tech-savvy friends — the kind of folks who nurse along the beowulf clusters our climate models run on — are scratching their heads over some cheeky shrieking that recently appeared in a WIRED magazine article on Rethinking What it Means to be Green . Crank up the A/C! Kill the Spotted Owl! Keep the SUV! What’s all that supposed to be about?

Let’s take air conditioning for starters. Basically WIRED took a look at the carbon footprint of New England heating vs. Arizona cooling and jumped to the conclusion that air conditioning was intrinsically more efficient than heating. To see where they were led astray let’s consider a house sitting where you need to cool it by 20 degrees to be comfortable. The heat leaks into the house at a rate that is approximately proportional to this temperature difference, and the heat leaking in needs to be removed. Now, in order to move that heat from inside to outside, energy has to be expended. Given a fixed electric power usage (in watts), a better air conditioner can remove more heat per day than a worse one, but every air conditioner needs to expend some energy to move the heat. That’s just thermodynamics.

Efficiency of air conditioners is measured by a SEER rating, which is the ratio of heat moved to the outside (in BTU/hr) to the electric power consumption (in Watts). A typical modern air conditioner has a SEER rating of 10, We can convert this into nicer units by converting BTU/hr into Watts, which means dividing the SEER rating by 3.413, which then gives us a Coefficient of Performance, in units of Watts of heat moved per Watt of electricity used. For the aforementioned efficiency, we move heat at a rate of 2.92 Watts if we expend 1 Watt of electric energy. An air conditioner is just a heat engine run in reverse: instead of making use of a temperature differential to use heat flow from hot to cold to do work, we expend mechanical work in order to move heat from a colder place to a hotter place. Thus, an efficient heat engine is an inefficient air conditioner. That’s basically why the Coefficient of Performance gets smaller when the temperature difference between indoors and outdoors is greater — with bigger temperature difference heat engine cycles tend to get more efficient, which means that air conditioner cycles tend to get less efficient. That’s also where the “S” in SEER comes from. It stands for “Seasonal,” and reflects the fact that efficiency must be averaged over the range of actual temperature differentials experienced in a “typical” climate. Your mileage may vary.

This situation can be contrasted with heating. If that same house were in an environment that were too cold instead of too warm, so that it had to be kept 20 degrees warmer than the environment, then the amount of heat leaking out of the house each day would be about the same as the amount leaking into the house in the previous case. That heat loss needs to be replaced by burning fuel. Now, generating heat is the only thing that can be done with 100% efficiency. Old furnaces lose a lot of heat up the chimney, but modern sealed-combustion burners– the kind that can use PVC pipes instead of a chimney — lose virtually nothing. With a heat exchanger between the air intake and the exhaust, they could closely approach the ideal. But still, in this case we are generating heat rather than just moving it, so it takes 1 watt of heat power from fuel burning to make up 1 watt of heat loss. That would seem to make heating a factor of 2.92 less efficient than air conditioning.

But wait, the story doesn’t stop there. First, there’s the fact that air conditioning almost invariably runs off of electricity, and the increased electricity demand is a big source of the pressure to build more coal-fired power plants. A house can be heated by burning natural gas, and right there air conditioning becomes 1.8 times worse than heating, because natural gas emits only 55% of the carbon of coal, per unit of heat energy produced. And it gets even worse: Coal fired power plants are only 30% efficient at converting heat into electricity, on average, so there you get another factor of 3.3 in carbon emissions per unit of energy transferred between the house and its environment. Finally, figure in a typical electric line transmission loss of 7% and you get another factor 1.075. Put it all together with the energy efficiency of the air conditioner itself and air conditioning comes in at a whopping 2.19 times less efficient than heating. for a given amount of temperature difference between house and environment. That means that so far as carbon emissions go, heating a house to 70 degrees when the outside temperature is 40 degrees is like cooling the same house to 70 degrees when the outside temperature is 83.7 degrees.

And that’s still not the end of the story. A house in need of air conditioning has other heat inputs besides the heat leaking in from outside, and all that extra heat needs to be gotten rid of as well. For example, heat is a waste-product of all energy use going on in the house. Four people produce 400W that needs to be gotten rid of, and then there’s the heat from hot water, lighting, the TV, cooking and what have you — all the energy usage within the house, plus 100W of biological heat per person needs to be gotten rid of. On top of that, you’ve got direct radiative heating from the sun, both from the sunllight getting through windows and solar heating of the exterior surfaces of the house, some of which will leak in through the insulation. Energy must be expended to remove all this heat. In contrast, in the heating season waste heat is subtracted from the energy needed for home heating.

So, WIRED got the story egregiously wrong, and not just because they did the arithmetic wrong. In their rush to be cute, they didn’t even make a half-baked attempt to do the arithmetic. But what if they had been right and air conditioning really were intrinsically more efficient than heating. Would that justify their conclusion that you can just "crank up the A/C?" without worry? No, of course not, because cranking up the A/C would still use additional energy and still lead to the emission of additional carbon. For the conclusion to be justified, it wouldn’t be enough for A/C to be more efficient than heating; it would have to be so much more efficient that the incremental energy usage from cranking it up were trivial. WIRED didn’t even try to make that case. If they had, they might have spotted their errors.

Is there any real conclusion that could have been drawn from more clear thinking about the heating vs. air conditioning issues danced around in the article? Yes, in fact. The conclusion is that it makes a lot of sense to build houses in places where the environment requires neither much heating nor much cooling. This is in fact why Los Angeles scores pretty well in carbon footprint per capita, despite all the driving (as noted recently in The Economist.). Another conclusion to be drawn from the carbon footprint of New England heating is that there are probably a lot of leaky homes up there heated by inefficient oil-fired furnaces. Fixing that situation represents a huge untapped virtual energy source.

What’s more, for a magazine that purports to be written by and for tech geeks, WIRED missed the biggest and most interesting part of the story: the same intrinsic efficiences of heat pumps can be run in reverse to give you the same economies for home heating as you get for air conditioning. To do this effectively, you’d have to run the heat pump off of natural gas rather than electricity (or perhaps run it off of locally generated solar power or wind). You’d also have to deal with the fact that heat pumps become less efficient when working across large temperature gradients, but that’s where geothermal heat storage systems come in, making use of the fact that the deep subsurface temperature remains near a nice 55F all year around. Now that would have been a nice story for a tech magazine to cover. And by the way, the decrease in efficiency of heat pumps as the temperature differential increases has another implication that WIRED missed: not only does global warming increase the basic demand for air conditioning, with all the attendant pressures on electricity demand, but it exacerbates the situation by decreasing the efficiency of the entire installed base of air conditioners.

Now about that spotted owl. This refers to a claim that industrial tree plantations take up carbon faster than old growth forests; Since spotted owls require the large trees found only in old-growth, the supposed implication is that if we want to soak up carbon we ought to damn the spotted owl and cut down all the old growth. WIRED really committed serial stupidities on this one. First of all, the article they cited in support of their claim was about carbon emissions from Canada’s managed forests, not from old growth. Now, it’s true that a rapidly growing young tree takes carbon out of the atmosphere more rapidly than a mature forest which more slowly transfers carbon to long term storage in soil. However, to figure out how much net carbon sequestration you get out of that young tree once it’s chopped down, you need to figure what happens to it. Lots of trees wind up in paper, carboard boxes, shipping palettes and other things that rapidly sit around decomposing or get burned off (or worse, turn into methane in landfills). Even the part that turns into houses has a relatively short residence time before being oxidized. Anybody who has maintained an old Victorian house knows about the constant battle against rot, and the amount of wood that needs to be replaced even if (knock wood) the thing doesn’t burn down or turn into a tear-down. So, WIRED is totally off the mark there, unless, to use the colorful language of my colleague Dave Archer, they can get trees to "drop diamonds instead of leaves."

Worse, they ignore the abundant literature indicating that old growth forests can be a net sink of carbon even in equilibrium, whereas the soil disturbance of clear cutting and industrial forestry can lead to large soil carbon releases. A classic article in the genre is "Effects on carbon storage of conversion of old-growth forests to young forests" (Harmon et al. Science 1990) . They state "Simulations of carbon storage suggest that conversion of old-growth forests to young fast-growing forests will not decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in general, as has been suggested recently.". For more recent work, take a look at what Leighty et al. (ECOSYSTEMS Volume: 9 Issue: 7 Pages: 1051-1065. 2006 ) have to say about the Tongass:.

  • "The Tongass National Forest (Tongass) is the largest national forest and largest area of old-growth forest in the United States. Spatial geographic information system data for the Tongass were combined with forest inventory data to estimate and map total carbon stock in the Tongass; the result was 2.8 +/- 0.5 Pg C, or 8% of the total carbon in the forests of the conterminous USA and 0.25% of the carbon in global forest vegetation and soils. Cumulative net carbon loss from the Tongass due to management of the forest for the period 1900-95 was estimated at 6.4-17.2 Tg C. Using our spatially explicit data for carbon stock and net flux, we modeled the potential effect of five management regimes on future net carbon flux. Estimates of net carbon flux were sensitive to projections of the rate of carbon accumulation in second-growth forests and to the amount of carbon left in standing biomass after harvest. Projections of net carbon flux in the Tongass range from 0.33 Tg C annual sequestration to 2.3 Tg C annual emission for the period 1995-2095. For the period 1995-2195, net flux estimates range from 0.19 Tg C annual sequestration to 1.6 Tg C annual emission. If all timber harvesting in the Tongass were halted from 1995 to 2095, the economic value of the net carbon sequestered during the 100-year hiatus, assuming $20/Mg C, would be $4 to $7 million/y (1995 US dollars). If a prohibition on logging were extended to 2195, the annual economic value of the carbon sequestered would be largely unaffected ($3 to $6 million/y). The potential annual economic value of carbon sequestration with management maximizing carbon storage in the Tongass is comparable to revenue from annual timber sales historically authorized for the forest."

So, it looks like that old Spotted Owl and its kindred old-growth denizens are in fact sitting not just on a nest, but on a treasure trove of carbon credits worth potentially more than the timber harvest.

And should you keep that SUV? This blurb in fact contains some useful advice, buried amidst some fuzzy reasoning and published over a witless tag line stating that "pound for pound" a Prius takes more energy to manufacture than a Hummer. The apparent implication of that tag line is rebutted in the article itself, but why give the reader that as a 32-point type take-home point when the WIRED editors don’t even themselves believe it’s an important statistic? This factoid refers to the energy used in the nickel component of Prius batteries, but it’s irrelevant because "pound for pound" doesn’t count if your point is moving 4 people from point A to point B. What transport value do you get from transporting four people plus the weight of the Hummer? Now, the rest of the fuzziness in the logic is a bit more subtle. The author notes quite rightly that there is a very significant carbon emission from manufacturing a car, which is indeed more for a Prius (at least for the moment) than it is for comparable sized non-hybrids.. Thus, if you are faced with ditching your existing car (whatever it may be) and buying a Prius, you need to consider how much you drive per year and see how long it takes to "pay back" the carbon emission from manufacturing the Prius. So far so good. But this is more a statement about the transition to more efficient cars, and how to deal with mistakes of the past, rather than a statement about what is intrinsically desirable in the fleet. As far as carbon emissions go, we’d still be better off if everybody who needed a car were in a Prius, except maybe for people who drive very little per year — who should then be into shared hybrids via iGO or ZipCars, Maybe if you drive very little and live out in a rural area where there are not going to be any shared cars, getting a compact non-Hybrid might make sense. There must be at least a dozen or two people out there in that category, I guess.

The rest of the advice WIRED gives makes even less sense. They say that if you want to be green, you ought to buy a used Civic or something like that, not a Prius. That’s because the used car already has the manufacturing carbon emissions "written down" (or, I guess at least the carbon guilt accrues to the original owner, not that the atmospheric radiative forcing is going to care much about that). However, this advice, sensible-sounding though it is — ignores the fact that to make that used car available to you, the original owner almost certainly had to buy something else, and probably that was a new car, or at least a newer one. So, for the scheme to work, you’d have to buy your used Civic from somebody who was giving up driving altogether. I no longer own a car myself, but I’m sorry I wasn’t able to participate in a scheme like this; by the time I gave up our remaining car ten years ago, it was suitable only for the crusher, and in fact had to be towed there.

The real implication is that manufacturing costs count, so most people should buy a small, efficient hybrid and keep it until it runs into the ground. The implication is also that durability of cars counts for nearly as much as gas mileage, since an efficient car that needs to be replaced every five years isn’t really all that efficient.

Along with all the nonsense is a certain amount of true (if by now commonplace) advice. Among this is the basic truth that urban living is inherently green, and if more people lived in cities (and if more cities were kept livable so people would want to move there). then per capita carbon emissions would go down. Even there, the Economist managed to be both more informative and more iconoclastic with its surprising analysis of the pattern of urbanism in Los Angeles. The other truism in WIRED is that nuclear power deserves a second look, and probably has an important role to play in a decarbonized energy future. Still, if you compare the cost of making all those chilly New England homes efficient with the total true cost of building more nuclear plants, well, let’s just say I’m buying stock in argon-filled low-e window manufacturers rather than Areva, much as I like their track record on nuclear electricity.


367 Responses to “Wired Magazine’s Incoherent Truths”

  1. 301
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (298), Here in central Texas we have already had more triple-digit days than we usually get all summer. Plus we’ve set new highs for something like 10+ days the past month. The old records that were broken were in all but one case (as I recall) established between 1910 and 1920. Are we now experiencing the effects of global warming? And (it would follow, I presume) were we 100+ years ago, too?

  2. 302
    Jim Galasyn says:

    In 299, Rod laments:

    Us skeptics are the ones suggesting other non-exclusive ideas ought to be thought about. If you haven’t noticed, it’s you guys, prima facie, that unload with c**p onto skeptics…”

    Prima facie nothin’ — if your “non-exclusive ideas” hadn’t been considered many times in the past and refuted by observational evidence in peer-reviewed forums, you could claim to be a “skeptic.”

    Because that’s not the case, it’s more accurate to call you “obdurate.”

  3. 303
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (298), I must admit that I was surprised and almost shocked over the clear bias, miscalculation and childish cherry picking by the WMO in your reference. I can see me doing that sometimes, and other posters here occasionally, but the WMO??!!? They take the two months in 2007 that tied previous records and totally ignore the precipitous drop of almost 0.7 degrees (near half the total rise since 1880) in global temperature over 2007 to prove GW. They imply Jan07 temperatures were higher by 1.89 degrees than the January averages, hoping the quick reader would take that as such. However, it’s clear they were really comparing the average temperature in Jan07 with the average temp in one month 100+ years ago. Then for the reader who figured that out, they evidently hoped we would assume they were comparing to 1880, since that what they said, and not clearly the abnormal low temp around 1892 or 3. Astounding. I couldn’t bring myself to check out the rest of the press release. (Or do I miss it that maybe WMO is just an advocacy group kinda masquerading as scientists?)

    And when did meteorologists suddenly become competent to discuss climate science? I recall posts here beating the dickens out of a few weathermen expressing skepticism

  4. 304
    Jim Galasyn says:

    In 301, Rod asks, “Are we now experiencing the effects of global warming [in Texas]?”

    You tell me:

    Potential Climatic Deterioration in Semiarid Subtropical South Texas

    …The linear least square regression analysis (Fig. 3) of 100 years of mean, minimum, and maximum temperatures shows that South Texas has experienced a warming trend.

  5. 305
    David B. Benson says:

    Rod B (301) — Were you 100+ years ago? Not many centennarians commenting here… :-)

    Seriously, as best as I can make out, yes, 100+ years ago there probably were some small global warming effects; well buried in normal climate variablity but there nonetheless,

    Temperatures for the past 1200 years:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/311/5762/841
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/02/a-new-take-on-an-old-millennium/langswitch_lang/po

  6. 306
    Hank Roberts says:

    Texas, despite what they tell you there, is not the entire world.
    You were experiencing Texas warming.

  7. 307
    Steve Fish says:

    With all of the discussion regarding the relative practicality the several carbon safe energy technologies (nuclear, solar, wind, biofuels, etc.), I have seen little on dry hot rock geothermal electrical generation. It is purported to–

    Be as clean as hydro without the problems caused by dams.

    Have a very low environmental impact during operation.

    Require no new technological development.

    Be a resource so vast that it is equivalent to renewable.

    Have a construction cost similar to a new coal fired generating plant.

    Have a construction carbon footprint similar to a new coal fired generating plant, but produce no CO2 while in operation.

    I learned of this technology in an article by William Calvin in the Skeptic (2008, “Turning Around by 2020,” 14, #1, 38-47). This is the same issue as the denialist article by Patrick Frank. A little web searching revealed very matter of fact articles about hot rock plants already running, or about to be started up. I also learned that the plant in Geyserville CA, just down the road from me, is one of these plants and has been very successful. I had thought that this plant was just harnessing the geysers.

    Is this just another impractical idea, or a resource that should be given more attention?

    Steve

  8. 308
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Secular Animist, The problem is that we are talking about climate, not weather, and the Midwest floods, Katrina, a single record year’s tornados, a single year’s high temperatures are weather. If we take them and say, “See, the climate is changing…,” what is to stop denialists from saying “See, it’s cooler this year than last….” Neither argument is based on climate. The probability of a 500 year flood event happening in any one year, is quite small, but it can happen in any year, and it must happen in some year. That is simply Poisson statistics. It’s occurrence THIS year tells us nothing. The probability of two 500 year floods in 15 years is roughly 4 in 10000, and that of 3 in 30 years 3 in 100000.
    Even though weather is what we observe, we must argue in terms of climate, since that is what the science tells us.

  9. 309
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B., Perhaps “skeptics” arguments for other potential causes might be better received if they didn’t keep arguing over and over again for the same tired, discredited mechanisms. You seem to be forgetting that the scientific community’s conclusions are based on EVIDENCE, and the “skeptics” have no evidence, no models, no theories, no credible mechanisms–only their stubborn grasp of the flimsiest straws of doubt.

  10. 310
    Hank Roberts says:

    Depends on the specifics.
    Google Scholar will find some six hundred hits since 2007.
    The last one in this page is cautionary:
    http://www.agu.org/meetings/fm07/fm07-sessions/fm07_V53F.html

  11. 311
    Rod B says:

    Jim (302), “…Prima facie nothin’… “??? All one has to do is review the posts as I suggested and see who’s lambasting and castigating whom.

    “Lament”? I didn’t feel mournful in the least. And I prefer tenacious over “obdurate” (though have been called worse) — other than I appreciate its use to validate my contention…

  12. 312
    Rod B says:

    Jim, Aaahh. The ole linear least square regression analysis act. That ought to dood it.

  13. 313
    Rod B says:

    David, sometimes a feel 100+ years ;-) . Not really quite that old but am old enough to be a licensed curmudgeon (but don’t tell Jim).

    My point was that to get their 1.89 degree (as I recall) spread the WMO had to cherry pick an abnormally low temp down-spike in about 1892 which was about 0.6 degrees colder than Jan 1980, the date they clearly implied was used. They weren’t even subtle about it — though knew most folks would not know the difference!

    Hank (306) says “…You were experiencing Texas warming…”

    But isn’t that likely from our hot air blowhards we’re so famous for?

  14. 314

    Steve –

    Yes, hot dry rock geothermal is a potentially huge source. It’s available pretty much anywhere on land around the planet. I wouldn’t mind seeing the US and other countries go into it in a big way.

  15. 315
    Martin Vermeer says:

    However, it’s clear they were really comparing the average temperature in Jan07 with the average temp in one month 100+ years ago. Then for the reader who figured that out, they evidently hoped we would assume they were comparing to 1880, since that what they said, and not clearly the abnormal low temp around 1892 or 3.

    That’s quite an accusation Rod… scientifc fraud if true. But fortunately very easy to check (hey you could have done it!). Which I did using GISTemp.

    The answer is no. Using your method I get 2.62 C and 1.51 C (against 1.89 and 1.37) for Jan07 vs 1893 and Apr07 vs 1892.

  16. 316
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “The problem is that we are talking about climate, not weather …”

    But one of the predictions from climate change theory is that weather will change:

    NOAA Study Forecasts Greater Extremes in Weather
    Greenhouse Gas Emissions Seen Fueling Swings
    by Juliet Eilperin
    Friday, June 20, 2008
    The Boston Globe

    As greenhouse gas emissions rise, North America is likely to experience more droughts and excessive heat in some regions even as intense downpours and hurricanes pound others more often, according to a report issued yesterday by the US Climate Change Science Program.

    The 162-page study, which was led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides the most comprehensive assessment yet of how global warming has helped to transform the climate of the United States and Canada over the past 50 years – and how it may do so in the future … the new report paints a grim scenario in which severe weather will exact a heavy toll. It warned that extreme weather events “are among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate.”

    If global warming theory predicts an increase in “extreme weather events”, and we observe an actual increase in “extreme weather events” that matches the predictions, then what is illegitimate about pointing to those extreme weather events as predicted manifestations of global warming?

    Are we also to say, analogous to your comment:

    “The problem is that we are talking about climate, not sea level rise …”
    “The problem is that we are talking about climate, not glacier melt …”

    And so on?

  17. 317
    Timothy Chase says:

    SecularAnimist (#316) wrote:

    Are we also to say, analogous to your comment:

    “The problem is that we are talking about climate, not sea level rise …”
    “The problem is that we are talking about climate, not glacier melt …”

    If sea level were to fall on a given year, would skeptics be justified in claiming this as “falsifying” what you are calling “global warming theory”? (What is “global warming theory” anyway? I thought it was all physics.) What if a particular glacier were to grow for several years?

    In the absence of global warming, could we expect some glaciers to melt for several years in a row? Could we expect sea level to rise some years and fall others? Ray pointed out that in the absence of global warming we would expect a flood of the same magnitude in Cedar Rapids every five hundred years. If there was a flood two thousand years ago, it wasn’t the result of anthropogenic global warming. And how many cities are there that are subject to five hundred year floods? Won’t a few of them have such floods each year even in absence of global warming?

    If the temperature is higher one year than the previous, is that the result of global warming? Probably not — it is more likely due to the internal variability — climate modes such as ENSO. Likewise, while higher water content of the atmosphere has no doubt made floods like what we saw in Cedar Rapids more likely, the current La Nina and Pacific Decadal Oscillation, both being in their negative phase, are in all likelihood more significant causal factors on this particular year.

  18. 318
    Rod B says:

    Martin (315), I’m reading rough-scaled graphs (20-year units but starting exactly with Jan1880) of GISS, so my numbers have some margin of error, but that has no effect on my contention. Read the link’s 1st para and see if you think they are clearly stating/implying that Jan07 temps were 1.89 degrees higher than the average since 1880, and then recheck your graphs to see if they are anywhere near accurate. My reading is Jan07 is about 1.1-1.2 degrees warmer than the average from 1880 to just shy of 1920, and 1.7-1.8 (or so) degrees warmer than a single month around 1892. (btw, if you use Jan08 instead of ’07 you get about 0.5 and 0.9 degrees warmer, respectively, but that would be my cherry picking that WMO probably detests.) Fraudulent? Probably not, but at the least its giddy hyperbolic, and obviously non-scientific bordering on childlike, editorial license. To repeat, astounding for a UN outfit named WMO.

  19. 319
    Jim Galasyn says:

    In 312, Rod doubts the linear least square regression test.

    Rod, you asked the question. I provided a credible answer from the Department of Geosciences at Texas A&M.

    What more do you want?

  20. 320
    Rod B says:

    SecularAnimist (316) says, “If global warming theory predicts an increase in “extreme weather events”, and we observe an actual increase in “extreme weather events” that matches the predictions, then what is illegitimate about pointing to those extreme weather events as predicted manifestations of global warming?”

    Because it’s faulty inductive logic that doesn’t follow.

    Neither do your other questions prove climate warming, but they are legitimate indications and considerations because they are long-term weather anamolies, not transient short-term events. You wouldn’t validate warming by saying ‘Norfolk’s high tide (ala sea level) last Wednesday and Thursday was highest in 15 years’.

  21. 321
    SecularAnimist says:

    Timothy Chase wrote: “What is ‘global warming theory’ anyway? I thought it was all physics.”

    By “theory” I mean a body of conceptual understanding and empirical observation that enables one to make predictions about things that have not yet occurred and/or have not yet been observed. Relativity theory, for example, predicted that we should be able to observe the bending of light by massive objects in space, and actual observations found that that prediction was correct.

    Global warming theory predicts, on the basis of relatively simple physics, that increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will cause the Earth to retain more of the sun’s energy and get warmer. We observe that this is in fact happening; the prediction is verified; the theory is confirmed.

    Going further, based on more complex physics, global warming theory predicts that certain effects of that warming will be observed — including an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of “extreme weather events”. We observe that the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events is, in fact, increasing, in accordance with the predictions from global warming theory. The prediction is verified. The theory is confirmed.

    Certainly, no single “extreme weather event” can be specifically attributed to global warming. Global warming theory does not predict that a specific hurricane will form in a specific place, at a specific time, develop in a specific way, follow a specific path, make landfall in a specific location, etc. Global warming theory does not predict that massively destructive flooding will strike the midwestern USA this year, rather than last year or next year.

    But global warming theory does predict — as the NOAA study I cited above indicates — that the pattern of such events over time will change in a specific way: extreme weather events will become more frequent, more intense and longer in duration. And a “pattern” consists of actual specific events that do occur. More powerful hurricanes become more common. “Five hundred year floods” become more common. Prolonged, extreme droughts become more common. Killer heat waves become more common. Not only the “climate” changes — weather changes.

    Ray Ladbury wrote earlier that it is wrong to point to the midwest floods in isolation as evidence of global warming. I submit that the error is not to point to the floods as evidence of global warming, but to consider them in isolation. They are not occurring in isolation. The floods are occurring as part of a pattern of increasing frequency, severity and duration of extreme weather events all over the world, which is just what global warming theory predicts, per NOAA, the WMO, and others. And the floods are, most importantly, indicative of what sort of weather we can expect in a future of unmitigated global warming.

  22. 322
    Steve Fish says:

    Hank Roberts, 310 concerning hot rock drilling and the earthquake in Switzerland.

    I had seen this report, but what it said to me is that one shouldn’t create these plants in the city. Fortunately some of the best sites in the U.S are in the least populated areas. Steve

  23. 323
    SecularAnimist says:

    Rob B wrote: “… they are legitimate indications and considerations because they are long-term weather anamolies … “

    So is a pattern of changes in the weather. Global warming predicts an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events. That increase will occur as predicted, or not. The only way to observe whether a pattern of increasing frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events is in fact occurring as predicted, is to look at the specific individual weather events that do occur, since any pattern will consist of the actual specific events that do occur. The current midwestern floods are among numerous events occurring all over the world that fit the predicted pattern.

    Global warming theory predicts that glaciers will melt. To test that prediction, we observe glaciers and see that they are melting all over the world. Each individual glacier is a data point in the larger observation that confirms the prediction.

    Global warming theory predicts that extreme weather events will become more frequent and intense. To test that prediction, we observe the weather. Each individual extreme weather event is a data point in the larger observation that confirms the prediction. The midwest floods are one such data point, just as each individual measurement of a glacier’s retreat or the sea level’s rise is a data point.

  24. 324
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Rod #318, the phrase they use is “warmer than average for January”. I read this first as meaning the average over 1880 – 2007, but that is obviously wrong. Your attempt for 1880 – 1920 is wrong too. Truth is, we don’t know what they used for average, and there are no references. Don’t you love press releases :-)

    I suspect the researcher giving these numbers used some sort of reconstructed pre-industrial average-for-the -month. Your suspicion of a single starting year does not hold up in the light of my numbers which were computed from the GISTemp met-station-only monthly average data table and is good to two decimals. (And why do we assume the claim is based on GISTemp data anyway?)

    There is a contact address at the bottom where you could ask for the appropriate references, though the release is from last year August… and don’t mention the ‘F’ word if you want a useful resonse :-)

    About cherry picking, note the title of the release. That would seem to justify, and even require, some form of “picking”. Though I think for the label to stick you need intent to deceive. Again, borderline fraudulent.

  25. 325
    Rod B says:

    Jim (319), Actually I was only half serious and half joshin’ re linear regression. The serious part is minor but true IMO, and that is that mathematical algorithms prove consistency of the math but only give clues to the physics. For instance it will show a consistent trend of the numbers even though the individual datum bounces all over the place. I can accept (for this scenario) the general trend of increasing temperatures over many decades as shown by the linear regression, least squares stuff. But it doesn’t explain why the temperatures here just the past 40 days of this year have been steadily and consistently a couple of degrees higher than normal nor why they broke records last set 100+ years ago. If one claims the recent heat wave is caused by global warming, how then does one explain the similar heat wave 100 years back? It is all part of the problem with attributing short-term transient weather phenomena (heat, floods, drought, cold, early blossoms, late blossoms, more hurricanes, less but stronger hurricanes, tornadoes, etc) to climate change.

  26. 326
    Rod B says:

    Martin (324), I have no idea what database WMO used, but to get close to a 1.9 degree increase you have to pick Jan07 and a single month with a highly skewed drop around 1892 (from my GISS graph), “averages” be damned. Whatever the motivation, the result is sloppy, unprofessional, and incompetent. Ask them for a reference that they can not possibly provide that also matches their words?? We’re supposed to pay them any mind?? (I don’t get all the way to “fraudulent”, though. It has a very high bar… and is such an ugly word…)

  27. 327
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Henning @ 297. Nice way to distort my words so as to make a strawman. Private interests influence the legislative process. The existence of lobbying groups and the presence of former politicians in these groups are facts. The outcomes of lawmaking highly favorable to certain interests and not oriented toward the general public interest are facts too. Although it is far better than most, the US has plenty of corruption to go around. If everything in it was kosher, why did the energy task force proceedings remain secret? Because the public should not know how its best interest is served? That’s only an example.

    By the way, authorities did try to shut up Hansen. But,as you said, this is not Zimbabwe so there was only so far they could go.

  28. 328
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Rod asks in 325:

    If one claims the recent heat wave is caused by global warming, how then does one explain the similar heat wave 100 years back?

    If we believe the trend line, the new heat wave is likely to be longer and/or hotter than “similar” heat waves in the past.

    AGW predicts longer and hotter heat waves.

    What’s so hard to understand about this?

  29. 329
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Galasyn: “AGW predicts longer and hotter heat waves.”

    And also, as I understand it, more frequent heat waves — as well as heat waves occurring both earlier and later in the season than they used to do. And a particular threat to human well-being is the prediction that the nights during heat waves will be hotter than in the past, since a CO2 “enhanced” atmosphere will retain more heat during the night. The inability to cool off at night can be the difference between life and death for vulnerable individuals, particularly the elderly.

  30. 330
    David B. Benson says:

    Rod B (313) — I find it easier to use the regional example of Swiss glaciers. By 1885 CE (some say by 1850 CE, mostly) all the Swiss glaciers had stopped growing; CO2 @ 288 ppm in 1850 CE. In 1958 CE, with CO2 @ 315 ppm, glaciers retreating at about 4 m/y; at 12 m/y since 1980 CE.

    There is also the decadal averages from the HadCRUTv3 global temperature product:

    http://tamino.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/10yave.jpg

    as well as the global temperature reconstruction for the past 1200 years I previously linked. Putting all this together with CO2 concentrations already being at the peak of the Eemian interglacial in 1850 CE, I’d say some anthropogenic global warming was indeed occuring 100+ years ago.

  31. 331
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Secular Animist (#316) what I’m saying is that we have to argue in terms of climate, and climate does not manifest in any one weather event. If we argue in terms of weather events, the denialists will counter with weather events. Instead, we have to couch our argument in terms of weather trends–that’s where our case is strong, because that’s where the science is.
    Rod’s heat wave is weather. The fact that we are having more heat waves than before is climate. A warm night is weather. A shift in temperature to warmer nights over an extended period is climate. We have to keep to the sceintific high ground, as it is the only vantage point we can defend.

  32. 332
    Rod B says:

    Philippe (327), I would not go to the extent that Henning does, but your characterization of the powerful big businesses is diametrically opposed to Congress’ incessant and chronic history of beating up on (and in public on TV if at all possible, with much flair and irrational grandstanding) oil companies, banks, financial institutions, energy companies, pharmaceuticals, energy support companies, telecommunications, computers and software enterprises, auto producers, large consumer goods outfits, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The large corporate influence sure doesn’t look like it’s paying off much.

  33. 333
    Rod B says:

    Jim (328), my curious question is unsophisticatedly simple. Why the hell did GW wait 100 years to show up significantly? And why following a year with a precipitous drop in global temperatures? Makes GW looked confused.

    [Response: This discussion is getting nowhere. Please keep the transparent strawman arguments for other sites. - gavin]

  34. 334
    Rod B says:

    David (330), can’t disagree with what you say, but it seems a stretch. True we started getting noticeable (though teeny) CO2 emissions in the late 1800s after we found commercial oil, which, as you say, propitiously came around the ~290ppm natural cyclical peak. (sidebar: Why is not CO2 being mitigated with the normal cyclical 100ppm drop? Too short a period to tell?) Doesn’t seem enough, but I certainly can not refute it — so I’ll give it to you. But what has this to do with the klutzy (at best) WMO?

  35. 335
    Rod B says:

    Gavin (333), I agree that Jim and I are starting to go around in circles and agree to desist. But a discussion of whether central Texas’ current “heat wave” is a direct result of AGW seems hardly a strawman.

  36. 336
    Martin Vermeer says:

    @326: Rod B:

    Ask them for a reference that they can not possibly provide

    Rod, try them. Stop assuming, implying, insinuating and start finding out.

    BTW you are wrong on the numbers. They are in the ball park for a difference with pre-industrial average. For scientists speaking out as scientists, ‘fraudulent’ has a rather lower bar than for, say, lawyers, politicians or business people, and includes all the practices you are alluding to.

  37. 337
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Rod, you’re not paying attention. What is actually in the language of those laws?
    Why was it that last time Congress had the oil executives in hearing, they did not madate them to be under oath?
    The tax breaks and subsidies (in the billions) that oil companies benefit from are enacted by Congress.
    Has Congress decided to use the buying power of the Government to bargain with pharmaceutical companies? No, Congress has actually made it impossible to do such a thing, ever. Media inflated posturing does not amount to action.

  38. 338
    David B. Benson says:

    Rod B (334) — The ‘normal’ 100 ppm drop comes with entering a stade (massive ice sheets). Baring AGW, next attempt is due in about 20,000 years.

  39. 339
    Rod B says:

    Martin (336), you’re getting on my nerves ;-) , but in a nice way! My numbers ARE NOT wrong, given a margin of error from eyeballing graphs with 20-year (x axis) and 0.5 degree divisions. So I went to the source, Hanson’s GISS data base. The delta T from Jan07 to an average from 1880 to about 1910 (and admittedly I’m eyeballing the annual temp averages to get a ~30-year average) is +1.06 to 1.11 degrees; I said 1.1 to 1.2. From Jan1880 to Jan07 the change is 1.09 degrees; I didn’t previously estimate this. The difference from Jan1892 and Jan07 is 1.73 degrees; I said 1.7 to 1.8 guessing “around 1992-3″ Now maybe WMO is using a different data set, though I’m not aware of major differences between other data sets. What’s interesting is the 1.73 degrees above is the maximum difference between any two months from Jan1880 through Jan07 (or May08 for that matter). WMO’s “1.89 average” is either from a data base 9% deviant from Goddard’s worst case or they’re pulling it from where the sun don’t shine.

    If you insist, I could go with fraud — but still think it’s more blatant stupidity, …or maybe exuberant smart-ass.

    David (338), makes sense given the granularity of the graphs; thanks.

  40. 340
    web tasarım says:

    Let’s take air conditioning for starters. Basically WIRED took a look at the carbon footprint of New England heating vs. Arizona cooling and jumped to the conclusion that air conditioning was intrinsically more efficient than heating. To see where they were led astray let’s consider a house sitting where you need to cool it by 20 degrees to be comfortable. The heat leaks into the house at a rate that is approximately proportional to this temperature difference, and the heat leaking in needs to be removed. Now, in order to move that heat from inside to outside, energy has to be expended. Given a fixed electric power usage (in watts), a better air conditioner can remove more heat per day than a worse one, but every air conditioner needs to expend some energy to move the heat. That’s just thermodynamics. Thank Youu realclimate

  41. 341

    Kevin Kelly, founding editor of WIRED offers something interesting from his blog:

    “In a cover article in Wired this month Chris Anderson explores the idea that perhaps you could do science without having theories.

    This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.

    Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

    There may be something to this observation. Many sciences such as astronomy, physics, genomics, linguistics, and geology are generating extremely huge datasets and constant streams of data in the petabyte level today. They’ll be in the exabyte level in a decade. Using old fashioned “machine learning,” computers can extract patterns in this ocean of data that no human could ever possibly detect. These patterns are correlations. They may or may not be causative, but we can learn new things. Therefore they accomplish what science does, although not in the traditional manner.

    What Anderson is suggesting is that sometimes enough correlations are sufficient. There is a good parallel in health. A lot of doctoring works on the correlative approach. The doctor may not ever find the actual cause of an ailment, or understand it if he/she did, but he/she can correctly predict the course and treat the symptom. But is this really science? You can get things done, but if you don’t have a model, is it something others can build on?

    We don’t know yet. The technical term for this approach in science is Data Intensive Scalable Computation (DISC). Other terms are “Grid Datafarm Architecture” or “Petascale Data Intensive Computing.” The emphasis in these techniques is the data-intensive nature of computation, rather than on the computing cluster itself. The online industry calls this approach of investigation a type of “analytics.”

    from:
    http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/06/the_google_way.php

  42. 342
    Rod B says:

    Richard P, very interesting and thought provoking. Is there (might there be) some aspect like a point of “diminishing to zero” returns, where recording more data just because its there (you can record temperatures at all the stations not just hourly but every minute, second, microsecond….) doesn’t give you any more information, and in fact might reduce the collective information and knowledge. But none-the-less our Data Intensive Scalable Computation will churn away and produce output that we can’t understand the basis of, and for all we might know is totally wrong — but we’ll never know. Is this feasible? Do we still charge ahead with the output? What if output after hours/days/months/years of peta/exabyte crunching is just…well…42?

  43. 343
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Richard Pauli brings up another half-a**ed idea from WIRED–science without theories.
    I say, “Absolute horse pucky.”

    I don’t care if your computer model can tell you what color of shirt God is wearing 10 years from now. If it doesn’t give you a conceptual understanding of the phenomena involved, their relative importance and the way they interact, it’s not worth the petabytes it takes to crunch it. Moreover, it is not science. There is a reason for theories, and it goes beyond simplification. Theories teach us which questions are interesting, and you won’t get that solely from crunching data.

  44. 344
    David B. Benson says:

    Ray Ladbury (343) — The way science is conducted is changing. ‘Theory” might mean various things, but I suggest that increasingly science is being done with less human conceptual understanding and slowly, increased computer program understanding.

    While I haven’t expressed this well, being in a bit of a rush, consider the possibility that the computer programs will determine what questions are interesting.

  45. 345
    Hank Roberts says:

    > sometimes enough correlations are sufficient….
    > A lot of doctoring works on the correlative approach.

    Yeh, and stomach ulcers correlate real well with stress.
    You need to know _what_all_ correlates to have an idea about where to look for a mechanism and suggest causation.

  46. 346
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dave Benson (#344), Sorry, I just don’t buy it. The whole purpose of science is to increase HUMAN understanding. To the extent that models assist in that, they further the scientific process. However, even with the current use of models, way too many researchers take the output of the model as gospel rather than trying to understand it. I don’t preclude that machines can “think,” but we’re just nowhere near that point yet.

  47. 347
    Rod B says:

    David, interesting thought, but scarry. When computers take over the conceptualizing and then even the questioning, we’re doomed. Probably faster than GW :-) .

    Hank, good point

  48. 348
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Rod #339, what about asking them where they have their reference average from? You know you want to know.

  49. 349
    Henning says:

    @Rod #342
    … 42?
    Thanks for giving me my daily chuckle… about time to get Douglas Adams into this. Its a good thing to remind oneself from time to time that the answers given by a computer never outsmart the questions asked.

  50. 350
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Rod B #339:

    …and you should use the “met stations only” (i.e., land only) GISS dataset, not the land-sea data set. Using the latter I reproduce your values (with Jan 1893 instead of 1892), with the former, much larger values: 1.33C and 2.62C, respectively.

    All this tells us it that whatever average they used, it (1) didn’t come from the instrumental record (at least GISTemp), and (2) falsifies your original cherry picking suggestion. (And like you, the cherry I would pick would be Jan 1893 :-) )


Switch to our mobile site