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Filed under: — stefan @ 4 May 2010

The new novel Solar by Ian McEwan, Britain’s “national author” (as many call him) tackles the issue of climate change. I should perhaps start my review with a disclosure: I’m a long-standing fan of McEwan and have read all of his novels, and I am also mentioned in the acknowledgements of Solar. I met McEwan in Potsdam and we had some correspondence while he wrote his novel. Our recent book The Climate Crisis quotes a page of McEwan as its Epilogue. And of course I’m not a literature critic but a scientist. So don’t expect a detached professional review.

In interviews McEwan describes his difficulties in approaching the topic of climate change: “I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with moral intent.”

One solution is that he makes his protagonist who tries to “save the world”, the Nobel laureate physicist Michael Beard, thoroughly pathetic and unlikeable. (Actually quite unlike any scientist I know, but certainly less boring than us at Realclimate.) The only redeeming feature of Beard is his sarcastic humor. When his business partner is worried that claims of global warming having stopped will ruin their grand solar energy scheme, Beard (after expertly refuting the “no warming since 1998” myth) retorts:

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

This is McEwan’s funniest book. The humour in it is another way around the moral gravity of the subject. In an interview he said:

The thing that would have killed the book for me, I’m sure, is if I’d taken up any sort of moral position, I needed a get-out clause. And the get-out clause is, this is an investigation of human nature, with some of the latitude thrown in by comedy.

Half-way through the novel Beard gives a riveting speech on climate change to an auditorium full of pension-fund managers (representing 400 billion dollars of investments) – a speech that I’d be almost tempted to steal and use verbatim myself at some occasion. But what could have been tedious – a whole lecture embedded in a novel – is turned into a hilarious scene where Beard is engaged in a losing battle with his bowels, trying to continue speaking while swallowing down “a fishy reflux rising from his gorge, like salted anchovies, with a dash of bile”.

McEwan showing off that he can write such a speech better than a scientist is reminiscent of his novel Enduring Love, to which he appended an entire scientific paper about a psychological disorder (De Clerambault’s Syndrome) that allegedly inspired the book. Later he admitted this “paper” was part of the fiction. He’d even submitted it to a journal, but one of the reviewers smelled a rat.

McEwan’s deep (and often playful) affinity to science is one of the hallmarks of his writing and of course one reason why I like his novels. The other is his stunning power of observation; he seems to be reading people’s minds, cutting right through their delusions to get to the deeper truths. In that, his analytic work as a writer resembles that of a scientist.

McEwan is a forceful rationalist and well-versed in science culture, and his witty observations on that are a big part of the fun of his books. In Solar, for example, he pokes some hilarious fun at the social constructivists. Beard chairs a government committee to bring more women into physics, and a social scientist on his committee introduces herself with a speech on how a particular gene is not discovered by scientists, but is rather a social construct.

Beard had heard rumours that strange ideas were commonplace among liberal arts departments. It was said that humanities students were routinely taught that science was just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology. He had always thought that this must be a slur against his colleagues on the arts side. The results surely spoke for themselves. Who was going to submit to a vaccine designed by a priest?

This develops into my favourite subplot. At a press conference of his committee, the journalists are “slumped over their recorders and notebooks” and “depressed by the seriousness of their assignment, its scandalous lack of controversy”, as “the whole project was lamentably worthy”. Beard makes some fairly harmless remarks about the efforts of bringing more women into physics perhaps reaching a ceiling one day, because they may have a preference for other branches of science. The social constructivist explodes (“Before I go outside to be sick, and I mean violently sick because of what I’ve just heard, I wish to announce my resignation from Professor Beard’s committee.”) Predictably, that makes the predatory journalists spring to life, and in the following McEwan spins a completely credible story how Beard’s remarks turn into a media storm where Beard’s love life is dragged into the tabloids and his “genetic determinist” views are linked to Third Reich race theories. One journalist, “more in the spirit of playful diary-page spite”, calls him a neo-Nazi.

No one took the charge seriously for a moment, but it became possible for other papers to take up the term even as they dismissed it, carefully bracketing and legalising the insult with quotation marks. Beard became the ‘neo-Nazi’ professor.

McEwan knows what he is writing about: he became subject to a media storm about his Islam-critical views a few years ago. I read Solar in February (thanks to an advance copy that the author had sent me), in parallel with the unfolding surreal, but real-world media campaign against IPCC, and found that McEwan dissects the mechanisms beautifully.

McEwan says that the idea to make a Nobel laureate the main character of his new book came to him in Potsdam, when attending the Nobel Cause Symposium organised by our institute in October 2007 (and on page 179 his hero Beard returns from a conference in Potsdam). At the time I discussed with him whether this wouldn’t be a good topic for a novel: humanity facing an existential threat that is well-understood by its scientists, but largely ignored by a population who prefers to delude itself in creative ways about the gradually unfolding disaster. McEwan responded: everything there is to say about this situation has already been said by Thomas Mann in his novel Death in Venice.

I’m glad he tackled the topic of climate change nevertheless. It’s McEwan at his best. Intelligent, funny, and full of insights. Read for yourself!

Link: Here is McEwan speaking about Solar (and about his views on climate change) in a TV interview.

726 Responses to “Solar”

  1. 551
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Burgy says, “Is there any scientist here who will (politely) refute him? If there is, I will try to get those refutations to him.”

    Burgy, you know I respect you, but frankly, why would we waste our time? Your friend is a deluded fool who refuses to look at the truth and doesn’t have the guts to face his critics. That is worth neither respect nor effort.

  2. 552
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Anonymous Coward, Might I suggest a reading comprehension class? There is zero evidence of a GLOBAL, contemporaneous warm period in Medieval times. There is plenty of evidence for local warming in Europe. Likewise cooling in the LIA. As to changes in CO2, do you have a specific dataset you can point to?

  3. 553
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Richard Steckis says, “John. That is a silly argument.”

    OK, now I’m going to pause to let the irony sink in…

    There, now wasn’t that delicious?

    Richard, just how is it less silly to contend that the temperature of Venus is due to pressure/compression. Let’s say that was the initial cause. What happens to Venus’ surface? It starts to radiate at roughly the temperature of a hot pizza oven–that’s losing a lot of energy. What would happen to the surface as that energy radiated away?

  4. 554
    Ray Ladbury says:

    It’s an interesting article. Unfortunately, the oblique strategy is not one that works well with all risks. Metastatic cancer is a good analogy. To simply decree that climate change is a “challenge” rather than a “problem” is a nice piece of semantics, but it doesn’t change the risk calculus. The risks are still there. That is the thing that people are ignoring. The science is established. It’s time to use that science to bound as best we can all the risks we face. Where we can’t bound risks, we must, at least initially, avoid them until we can bound them.

    We know how to deal with this threat. We know the threat is real. We merely have a substantial portion of the population who persistently refuse to recognize objective reality.

  5. 555
    Ricki (Australia) says:

    Perhaps off topic, but has anyone thought to check if the apparent drop in methane rates in the atmosphere could have resulted because we are putting so much of the atmosphere through our engines/power stations?

    Perhaps we are burning it? Can someone who has the figures do a quick calculation please.

  6. 556

    Jacob Mack #528: I said Newton’s Laws fell apart at the edges, which I think is a reasonable characterisation.

    More on Medieval Warm Period: there’s a conspiracy-theoretic site styling itself CO2science or similar that has meticulously collected every paper they could find on the subject to prove there’s a conspiracy (a conspiracy conducted by publishing so much evidence? But anyway …). They rank the papers as to quality of evidence. I looked at the papers they considered the best, and found the temperature peak at different parts of the world covered a range of about 600 years. So CFU #517 is right on the money.

    Finally on atmospheric lifetime of CO_2. Relate this to atmospheric lifetime of water vapour, typically a few days. But it gets recycled, and relative humidity doesn’t vary that much averaged over a season — unless something upsets the balance (e.g., warming, which will increase absolute humidity if relative humidity is unchanged). Same with CO_2. There are massive fluxes to and from the atmosphere and as long as nothing changes the balance, the average is about constant. What can change the balance with CO_2 is pumping more into the atmosphere, reducing vegetation or increasing temperature (the latter reducing the ocean’s capacity to store CO_2). Pumping more water vapour into the atmosphere is a short-term effect because it precipitates out as soon as temperatures drop; CO_2 imbalances take a lot longer to correct. So in summary the important issue is not how long a molecule stays in the atmosphere, it’s whether the balance between inflows and outflows is perturbed and how long it takes to correct that imbalance.

  7. 557
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Martin A. Nuclear testing has had a massive effect on C isotope techniques and is heavily studied.”

    Wasn’t that about isotopes created in situ and their decay products, rather than the fallout creating C14 isotopes (my dad worked in Australia for the RAF when they did the bomb tests, so I may be somewhat out of date, but I don’t think it pertains to this phenomena).

  8. 558
  9. 559
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “My good friend who will not post here because he gets such rough treatment has sent me these comments:”

    He’s never posted here.

    YOU’VE posted here for your “friend”.

  10. 560
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “”It sounds like Ray Ladbury and others are denying that there had been variations in global tempartures coinciding with the so-called MWP and LIA”


    Why the clucking bell did you [edit] that out but left the arrogant bollocks anonymous put in???

    Is it fine for denialist trolls to be arseholes but god forbid a non-denialist do so?

    I thought that the bollocking every climatologist got over “climategate” would show you why that’s a stupid activity: creates the myth that “science” people only say nice things.

    Arseholes, I say.

  11. 561
    Completely Fed Up says:

    This link:

    Gives the idea that biological cycling of CO2 has a half-life of ~10 years.

    Doesn’t really help, since that doesn’t actually change the amount of CO2, so all you get is the mixing back into the biosphere from the “enriched” C14 in the atmosphere. To actually *measure* CO2’s real longevity, we’d have to stop producing extra CO2.

    How about we try that?

    After all “skeptics” are only asking for empirical measurement of IPCC pronouncements.

    This one is easy to show. Just stop burning fossil fuels and measure how the CO2 reduces!

  12. 562
    Anonymous Coward says:

    Ray (#552),

    CO2 concentrations in Antarctica can hardly be explained by European temperatures. They are likely related to the global temperature although other causes can not be ruled out of course (volcanism, agriculture, desertification, ?). [edit–that’s enough on this, its off topic, and you would be well served by reading up on the topic]

  13. 563
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “We know how to deal with this threat. We know the threat is real. We merely have a substantial portion of the population who persistently refuse to recognize objective reality.”

    The real problem is that we have a very tiny portion of the population who are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit per day, who want to keep the fossil fuel gravy train going as long as possible, which of course requires delaying and obstructing implementation of the known solutions, all of which require phasing out consumption of their products as rapidly as possible.

    So that tiny portion of the population has mounted a highly effective, generation-long campaign of deceit, obfuscation and denial, the result of which is the ill-informed “substantial portion of the population” that you refer to.

  14. 564
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Anonymous Coward @529: “But look at the Law Dome CO2 concentrations for instance. How do you explain atmospheric CO2 falling from the early 12th to the early 17th century?”

    1) Increased absorption of atmospheric CO2 by cooler ocean surface waters in the wake of repeated volcanic eruptions and reduced solar activity.

    2) Regrowth of woody brush and forest on abandoned agricultural lands in Europe and the Americas in the wake of large scale human mortality from pathogens (bubonic plague, small pox. etc.).

  15. 565
    Hank Roberts says:

    Fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geologic time [PDF]D Archer – J. Geophys. Res, 2005 –

    “… A model of the ocean and seafloor carbon cycle is subjected to injection of new CO2 pulses of varying sizes to estimate the resident atmospheric fraction over the coming 100 kyr. The model is used to separate the processes of air-sea equilibrium, an ocean temperature feedback, CaCO3 compensation, and silicate weathering on the residual anthropogenic pCO2 in the atmosphere at 1, 10, and 100 kyr. The mean lifetime of anthropogenic CO2 is dominated by the long tail, resulting in a range of 30–35 kyr. The long lifetime of fossil fuel carbon release …..

  16. 566
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Burgy @532:

    Arctic ice in April was not above the long term norm. Tell him to look it up for himself instead of relying on hearsay:
    Whoops, Oh look, it’s currently headed back down to 2007 levels.

    Antarctica is losing ice mass. Tell him to look it up for himself instead of relying on hearsay:
    (Cites in text.)

    To what does your friend attribute the sustained drought decimating Kilimanjaro’s glaciers?

    Some polar bear populations are increasing, more are declining.
    (Cites in text.)

    CO2 is going up but the temperature isn’t going up much….
    because natural variability can and will at times swamp any underlying trend.
    Whoops, oh look, the past 12 month period is the warmest in the entire instrument record, while January, February and March have set warmest records:
    (Set desired month. April should be available any day now.)
    Even the AMSU satellite data shows record anomalies:

    “…all the numerical manipulations to increase the apparent heating which climatologists engage in.”
    This begs the question:
    Burgy, why do you remain friends with a person who makes such ignorant and slanderous assertions?

  17. 567
    Jim Eager says:

    Brian Dodge, putting some paragraph breaks in your posts would not only make them more readable, it would mean more people would actualy read them.

  18. 568

    Tangentially on-topic, I’m reading Gwynne Dyer’s “Climate Wars” just now.

    Dyer is a well-known and respected war correspondent; in this book he takes a look at the probable security consequences of the IPCC and Copenhagen projections–informed by interviews with high-ranking civilian and military officials around the world. Fascinating, and scary.

    Here’s a preview link:

  19. 569

    556 (Phillip),

    I love that site. If you look at the papers, it goes beyond just the wide range of dates that “define” the MWP. You will find:

    1) Some of the papers study multiple sites, of which they’ve chosen to present a graph for the single one that shows warming, while as many as 5 nearby, contemporaneous sites show no such thing.

    2) One of the papers, in the conclusion, explicitly points out that other studies have used other proxies for nearby sites and found no warming (only this one particular proxy found warming), so the paper is discussing the technique and local phenomena in that lake in particular, and is itself careful to point out that it has nothing to do with measuring even regional, let alone global, temperatures.

    3) In at least one case, the same paper is used twice, but placed in two different spots on the map, making it look more “full.”

    4) In multiple cases, there is no scale on any graph, so there’s no way to tell “how warm” or “exactly when.” In these cases, the proxy usually does not reach into the present, so there’s not even a fair way to say “warmer than” or “cooler than” today. Usually, its a visual argument that amounts to “look, a bump, right where you’d expect the MWP to show… see? See?”

    5) In many cases, it is very questionable whether or not the source is peer reviewed, due to an obvious lack of rigor in the information presented.

    6) In many cases, the graphs presented by the web site were noticeably altered from the original paper, presumably to highlight the point of the site (MWP) when the original paper does not, in fact, have anything to do with it.

    This one site did more to make me completely ignore any talk about the MWP than anything else I’ve seen (well, add in Mann, 2009, and for me that’s a done deal).

  20. 570

    Patrick 543,

    The equation is for the multi-level “glass slab” model in which each level absorbs no visual light but all IR.

  21. 571
    t_p_hamilton says:

    John E. Pearson said:
    11 May 2010 at 11:58 AM

    “Do the blogoscientists argue that the temperature a kilometer deep in Earth’s oceans (where the pressure is 90 bar) is 476 C? Or do they invoke some other new physics to explain why not? Just wondering.”

    Richard Steckis replied:
    12 May 2010 at 7:51 PM
    “John. That is a silly argument. Oceans do not act like atmospheres as they have an incompressible medium (saline water) as opposed to atmospheres which have compressible gasses that can produce work and therefore heat when compresssed and uncompressed.”

    Is Venus’ atmosphere changing volume? If not, this compressibility argument as a difference is actually the silly argument.

  22. 572
    Walter Crain says:

    so, i’ve been reading about mann, the hockey stick, the MWP and so forth. in the process, i’ve come across mann’s now-famous “trick” to “hide the decline”. i understand how it’s not a “trick” in the deceptive sense, but more of a technique.

    but, why is there a “decline”? why does the tree-ring record “veer of course” in 1960 or 1981 or whatever? what are the best proxies?

  23. 573
    Nick says:

    I can’t believe this pressure-heating nonsense is still going on.

    It’s very simple: combine the hydrostatic equation (reasonable!) with the first law of thermodynamics. Your lapse rate in the atmosphere is a function of gravity and the heat capacity of the gas: dp/dz = g/cp. It does NOT set the surface temperature. It is like have y=mx+b, and having m only. It does not describe the temperature at any particular altitude, only the change in temperature with altitude.

    The sun provides the energy source that sets planetary temperatures. Plain and simple. Solar irradiance and downwelling longwave from any greenhouse gasses heats the ground and sets the temperature at z=0. Use the lapse rate to extrapolate an atmospheric temperature profile of the troposphere from there (in reality, you need to account for latent heat release in the troposphere, and this assumes thermal equilibrium). Or, you could just invent the perpetual-energy atmosphere that heats itself :)

    Imagine a world where these folks took basic atmospheric science courses. Or, heck, picked up a book.

  24. 574
    John E. Pearson says:

    543: Patrick 027 said (quoting me) “I’m also unclear as to how to go to optical thickness that you see in elementary expositions: T_{surface}^4 = (1+Opt) T_{e}^4 ,”

    “That’s an interesting equation; I’ve never seen that before; it might apply to some cases but I’m not sure if it’s a good equation to use or not.”

    It’s equation 3-10 in the one Atmospheric physics book that I own which was available for $1.49 on Amazon: “Atmospheres” by Goody and Walker, published in 1972. It’s just from a layer model. Goody identifies optical thickness with the number of layers (where the thickness of each layer is determined by requiring that photons emitted from within the layer not be reabsorbed by the same layer and that the layer be thick enough that it absorbs incoming photons, clearly an approximation but I guess it isn’t too bad.

    I read a bunch of the stuff that you linked to (Chris Colose’s pages, and most of an RC page that Ray Pierrehumbert wrote) but I do need to get some work done today.

  25. 575
    Nick says:

    I can’t believe this pressure-heating nonsense is still going on.

    It’s very simple: combine the hydrostatic equation (reasonable!) with the first law of thermodynamics. Your lapse rate in the atmosphere is a function of gravity and the heat capacity of the gas: dp/dz = g/cp. It does NOT set the surface temperature. It is like have y=mx+b, and having m only. It does not describe the temperature at any particular altitude, only the change in temperature with altitude.

    If you know the effective radiating altitude and have a lapse rate, sure, you can estimate surface temperature. But that has nothing to do with pressure, either. Do they understand the concept of the effective radiating altitude? Or basic radiative transfer?

    But never mind all of that, Venus has apparently defied thermodynamics and radiative physics, and has invented the self-heating atmosphere :)

    Imagine a world where these folks took basic atmospheric science courses. Or, heck, picked up a book.

  26. 576
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “but, why is there a “decline”? ”

    Michael, why is it you’ve read so much but missed the answer to that question?

    Rebunking is why I picked this handle.

    Short answer: nobody knows. That’s biology for you.

    Why do SOME tree rings in SOME regions not concord with other proxy recordings including actual temperature readings with the proxy “thermometer”.

    Then again, why are people looking at one proxy in limited areas for limited tree species? What’s wrong with looking at all the rest of the measurements?

  27. 577
    Completely Fed Up says:

    PS: The best proxy is the thermometer.

  28. 578
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Completely Fed Up – “Please, Patrick, don’t correct me on things I never said.” Well, I misunderstood your original point; when you said it was only a bit more than 2^6 doublings, I thought (perhaps because I know that CO2 is important, and maybe also I read your comment too quickly) that you were refering to CO2.

    “explain this:” “Why are the other gasses not producing any surface pressure?” “What? They *are*???” “Then, why are you and Motl taking out only the pressure from CO2 and relating that to the temperature of the surface?”

    Could you not correct me on things I didn’t say?

    Let’s just agree to agree (because, argumentation styles aside (yours by finding self-contradiction and counterexamples, mine by description of the real physics), it appears we do agree with each other) and leave it at that.

  29. 579
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Well, I misunderstood your original point;”

    Fair enough.

    “Could you not correct me on things I didn’t say?”

    They were rhetorical questions. This is why I answered them.


    So can you please tell me “why are you and Motl taking out only the pressure from CO2 and relating that to the temperature of the surface?”

    Because you keep telling me that Venus has 2^18 times as much CO2 as Earth and this is important in Motl’s explanation of why Venus is hot.

    If you don’t think this is important in Motl’s question, please stop telling me about how much more CO2 Venus has got.

    Then if someone else can explain why Motl is harping on about how Venus having 2^18 times as much CO2 proves that only the air pressure can explain why Venus is so hot.

    So you see, you COULD have answered the non-rhetorical one.

    Give it a go.

  30. 580
    Walter Crain says:

    CFU, in response to

    “but, why is there a “decline”? @572

    @576 you said,
    ”Michael, why is it you’ve read so much but missed the answer to that question?”

    Rebunking is why I picked this handle.

    Short answer: nobody knows. That’s biology for you.”

    by “michael” i presume you mean “walter”, right? well, i’ve read some, but probably not as much as many here – that’s why i ask – and i haven’t come across an answer to “why the decline?”.

    believe me, CFU, i think we’re on the same “side” here. but what may be “rebunking” to you is just debunking to me. (and apparently since the answer is “nobody knows” then there can be no REbunking, right?) when i’m out here talking to my in-laws they’re gonna say something about how we “alarmists” “pick and choose” which tree ring data to use and “hide” data that doesn’t fit our little pet AGW theory designed to separate you from your money…. that’s what they’ll say. and seems to me like tree rings don’t make very good proxies. maybe part of your answer included the idea that they’ve got to use lots of tree rings and kind of average them out, maybe throw out the outliers?

  31. 581
    Completely Fed Up says:

    PS Patrick, why I’m short with you is it took, what?, four or five repeats of what I’d said to get you to comprehend it.

    We don’t disagree that Motl is wrong.

    But if you don’t know why Motl is saying that since Venus has 2^18 times as much CO2 as Earth that therefore the only explanation of why Venus is so hot is because it’s higher pressure, can we clear the board and see if anyone else knows.

    Steksis probably doesn’t, though he’s quite au fait with repeating it. I guess he isn’t actually a skeptic. If he were, he would have checked why Motl’s answer was good…

  32. 582
    Jim Eager says:

    Walter Crain @572: “but, why is there a “decline”? why does the tree-ring record “veer of course” in 1960 or 1981 or whatever?”

    As I understand it, it’s thought that the trees were stressed by acid rain caused by unregulated industrial emissions from Europe and eastern Russia. The acidity weakened both the needles and root systems of the trees and leached nutrients from the soil, thus disrupting growth ring patterns.

  33. 583

    “agree to agree”– :-)

    (There’s enough to disagree with as is.)

  34. 584

    #580 Walter Crain

    Think about variability in nature. It could be local changes in soil moisture content, changes or differences in regional variability, changes or differences in soil nutrient content, or as Jim Eager pointed out, influences by acid rain. Or degrees and combination’s of all of the above.

    The simple fact the trees in one region of the planet do not represent all the trees on the planet just as the temperature in your backyard does not represent the temperature of the earth.

    local vs. global

    That is why you need to add it all together to get averages and trends on larger, global, scales. That is also why science examines many different proxies to see the trends, as opposed to a single data set. This is similar to the medieval warm period (MWP) argument. Since the indicators point to a DO event, with ocean heat content migrating between north and south hemispheres, the measurement in the norther hemisphere needs to be measured with the proxies form the southern hemisphere. That way you geta better picture of the global temp rather than just the NH temp and its associated Arctic amplification.

    In other words, a single measurement does not tell you the global picture.

    Context is key.

    A Climate Minute The Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
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  35. 585
    Walter Crain says:

    Jim Eager, thanks.

  36. 586
    Ike Solem says:

    Jacob Mack: “Having been to UC Berkely recently and reading many publications form there, they are still doing a fine job in research into cleaner alternative energy sources and technology. Berekley is still quite a green center here in California.”

    You would expect that claim to be backed up by something – some evidence – but there is really very little, is there? What innovative new research has come out of the BP-financed Berkeley “Alternative Fuels” Initiative? More tar sand research? How about the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Program?

    The major universities have completely dropped the ball on renewable energy research, in fact, and their public-private partnerships with oil companies are a central part of the problem. Their media experts on energy put out a lot of nonsense, for example:

    UC Berkeley’s Daniel Kammen discussing solar energy on PBS NOVA

    NARRATOR: But that is not the only problem. Coal can be burnt to release energy when you need it, but what do you do if the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow?
    DANIEL KAMMEN: Renewables aren’t the easy we’re-just-going-to-do-it solution. There are issues. One of the big issues is that for solar and wind, in particular, they are intermittent. They’re on some of the time, off other times, and it’s not consistent. You cannot always predict it.
    NARRATOR: But grid managers have to predict it. They need power on demand. And when they can’t get it, it raises one alarming specter.

    There are issues with all energy sources. For example, crude oil is useless unless you refine it. If you have crude oil, but no refinery, it’s useless to you. This is why so many oil-rich Third World countries have to import gasoline at full cost, even as they export their crude oil to industrialized nations – it’s a big issue.

    Issues with solutions (such as using batteries or chemical systems to store sunlight and wind energy for later use) are different from issues without solutions (such as the energy cost of capturing CO2 from a coal combustion stream, or the lack of underground reservoir space to store the captured carbon). Could it be that Daniel Kammen, a listed “media expert” at UC Berkeley, simply doesn’t know about energy storage systems? Unlike “clean coal” technology, which is kept hidden from public view under proprietary wraps by the DOE-Battelle public-private partnership clauses, energy storage systems really do exist, and there are many working examples.

    The BP-Berkeley and Exxon-Stanford deals really point to the failure of academic institutions to retain their independence and objectivity when it comes to energy research. These contorted academic-industrial-governmental relationships are the primary reason why the myth of “zero-emission clean coal” has persisted for almost a decade now, and drawn billions in federal funding, despite never having gone through any kind of public review process – there’s no International Panel on Clean Coal, is there? What would they find if they really looked into the issue?

    Similar issues come into play with the oil spill, don’t they? What risk of blowouts would an independent scientific review assign to your average deepwater well? Recall that in the Challenger disaster, NASA public relations folks insisted that there “was no expected risk of catastrophic failure” while engineers gave numbers like “one in a thousand” – they knew that launching a giant object into space was an inherently risky activity, after all. So is drilling a well in deep water – and then the question becomes, is the benefit obtained greater than the risk taken? If the risks are “externalized” to the taxpayer and the local ecosystem, while the oil company is given a liability cap of under $100 million, then sure, it makes sense for the oil company to risk blowouts in the pursuit of inflated profit margins – but if the oil company and their shareholders are not insulated from such risks – if they have to pay for their actions, in other words – then offshore drilling no longer makes sense.

    Are the risks going to go away? It doesn’t seem like it.

  37. 587
    Hank Roberts says:

    Guys, it’s impractical to try to retype the answers to the ‘divergence’ talking point over and over. Is there a single best place to point people?

    At delayed.oscillator, a scientist blogs on it thoroughly, addressing both the real science and the repeated copypasting of bogus claims:

    “… My point is not to indicate a ‘correct’ method here — that goes well beyond ‘Blog Science’. Rather my point is this: detrending and standardization is one of the most challenging tasks in accurately estimating past low frequency climate variability from tree rings. Divergence is a serious challenge worthy of further study….”

    John Cook covers it well.

  38. 588
    Stephen Baines says:

    Nick @575. From a scientific viewpoint, I also am dumbfounded that we are still discussing this seriously. Really though, the discussion is implicitly about effective communication of scientific principles. I think the focus on lapse rates etc may be distracting and confusing to people who are less familiar with atmospheric and planetary science. Maybe it would be more compelling to provide a direct and simple visual test of the underlying proposition behind Goddards and Motls argument. Basically they are assuming that compression of an air mass perpetually injects heat (and therefore energy) into that air mass — a proposition that, if true, would surely win the Nobel prize in physics and solve all our energy problems! It would be best if this test could be done by anyone in their backyard, or would be amenable to YouTube video-ization.

    Let me try, tomfool biologist that I am. If you lower a balloon full of air to the bottom of a pool of water that has the same temperature as the air in the balloon, you would see the balloon reduce in volume and the temperature of the air in the balloon should increase above that of the surrounding water. The Goddard and Motl hypothesis (as I understand it) would hold that this new temperature would be maintained because it reflects an ongoing net generation of heat by the work of pressure and your hand (a proxy for gravity). Of course, if you wait long enough, the temperature would eventually come to match that of the surrounding water (albeit by conduction most likely rather than radiative emissions) and the volume of the balloon would decrease further in response.

    Wouldn’t that demonstration make the point that the initial temp increase was not due to generation of heat, that heat was not being produced continually and the increase in temp due to compression eventually results in loss of heat to the surroundings as the system equilibrates with its surroundings (i.e., space)? To test the convection as perpetual energy machine model, one could also repeatedly raise and lower the balloon to see if it the temperature would increase over time.

    These are high school like demonstrations, and it’s nothing a real working scientist has time to do. My point is that to counteract this clear attempt at disinformation (I cannot believe Motl and Goddard do not understand the Ideal Gas Laws – if they truly believed their own propositions they would be trying to publish in Nature ASAP and they wouldn’t focus on the Venusian atmosphere) we must to strip their arguments to the simplest assumptions and reveal these assumptions simply do not comport to what everyone experiences in everyday life. It’s physics afterall – everyone is subject to it everyday of their lives.

    Maybe I’m too naive.

  39. 589
    David B. Benson says:

    Anonymous Coward — I recommend reading climatologist W.F. Ruddiman’s “Plows, Plagues and Petroleum and Charles C. Mann’s “1491”. Bill Ruddiman has a guest thread here on RealClimate.

  40. 590
    CM says:

    re: causes of the “divergence problem”

    Suspects include drought / lack of moisture, “possible reduced atmospheric clarity, localized persistence of spring snow cover and seasonal changes in ozone-related surface UV concentrations”.

    – Jones et al., “High-resolution palaeoclimatology of the last millennium: a review of current status and future prospects”, The Holocene 19,1 (2009) pp. 3–49 at p. 10. doi:10.1177/0959683608098952.

  41. 591
    Walter Crain says:

    john p, thanks.

    hank, thanks again. i should have thought to check that john cook site – that’s a good one.

    reading those sources, seems like we still can’t say for sure why, and we still can’t say “divergence” didn’t happen in the past. even individual trees in the same forest could grow differently.

  42. 592

    Thanks to several who took the time to answer (refute) my friend’s assertions. One of you claimed he had never posted on RC. Actually, he id, several times. But I don’t wish to draw attention to him.

    Why am I still his friend? Because I see in him a perfect example of Bacon’s writing, “Man believes what he wants to believe.” I have been trying for over a year to “break through,” because he really is a nice guy (actually there are three of him I correspond with) and he is a friend of long standing. He is also quite successful in his field (geophysics). He really believes the stuff I posted — because his wish to believe it has overridden his analytical mind. I find that a fascinating problem to study.

    I plan to copy him on the substantive (and polite) responses and ignore the rest.

  43. 593
    Completely Fed Up says:

    And so what, Walter? A dozen other proxies agree with each other and for over 100 years the tree rings in those few areas agree.

    So given that there are a dozen other measures and for over 100 years of the record, the ACTUAL temperature measures, what do you think the chances of previous divergence would be?

  44. 594
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Yes, I meant Walter. Oops.

    “and i haven’t come across an answer to “why the decline?”.”


    Did you not hear any of the responses to the allegation to those who used “the trick” (and if you didn’t, did that not ring bells in your head), where they state that the “decline” was hidden quite well in the peer reviewed literature?

    If you did know that the peer reviewed literature had discussed this, did you not think that maybe the issue of “the decline” had been considered and acted on (e.g by not using data we could tell was dodgy)?

    the skeptical science site is probably a great place to go when you’ve “heard something”.

    (Hank, I guess that answers your query too…).

  45. 595
    Hank Roberts says:

    Walter, there’s a fundamental thing about science you have to get clear to understand the “we still can’t say” arguments like about divergence.

    Science doesn’t give proof, doesn’t give “yes or no” certainty.
    Science gives probabilities.

    There’s no divergence problem except in the last few decades; the divergence is between a few kinds of trees and locations, and the rest of the tree proxies and thermometer records during the last few decades.

    Before that there’s no divergence problem between the tree proxies and the thermometer records as far back as we had thermometer records.

    Before _thermometers_ there’s no divergence problem between those kinds of trees and locations– compared to all the other trees and locations.

    So while “we still can’t say for sure” — that’s because science doesn’t do that. Science tells you there’s no evidence for divergence before the last few decades, and that it’s a lively area of research.

    People are looking. Possibly they’ll find someplace where in the past there was a local climate shift, and some tree types in some sites responded faster for a few decades than the other trees around them. What would _that_ suggest? That the divergence is a result of very rapid climate change.

    You should go beyond the “no one can really say for sure” arguments if you want to read science at all. Otherwise you’re reading politics.

  46. 596
    Completely Fed Up says:

    OK, so what was wrong and needed [edit]ing? “The rebunking is that there’s a problem here”? Where’s that bad?

    [no, the pointless, argumentative accusations–drop them]

  47. 597
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Moderator: As far as I remember, there wasn’t one under that edit. At the *very* least, more than an accusation was under that.

    I ask because I’m trying to work out what is happening. If it’s there was some accusation then I can see where you’re coming from, but if there isn’t, then am I to guess as to what is going to get in?

    [there was. we don’t have time to pick through posts to edit them. stick strictly to substance and all will be fine.]

  48. 598
    David B. Benson says:

    Predicting the next stade (massive ice sheets): here is a fine contribution
    On the use of simple dynamical systems for climate predictions: A Bayesian prediction of the next glacial inception
    Authors: Michel Crucifix, Jonathan Rougier
    with better graphs seen in

    This paper strongly suggests that the early anthrogenic influence on climate was unnecessary to avoid a stade, even a serious attempt, around the present. The paper suggests mostly likely the nest stade will be (would have been without anthropogenic influences) around 60,000 years from now.

    That said, and despite the fine model fit, we cannot yet have much confidence that this particualr model adequately represents the long term behavior of climate. Indeed, some aspects of the model are not (well) physically motivated. So I’m certainly looking forward to Bill Ruddiman’s forthcoming papers offering his explanation as to why humans avoided a stade attempt around the present time.

  49. 599
    Patrick 027 says:

    On the formula T_{surface}^4 = (1+Opt) T_{e}^4 and it’s applicability:

    Re 570 Barton Paul Levenson, 574 John E. Pearson


    The version I’ve seen:
    for n isothermal layers with 100 % emissivity and absorptivity upwards and downwards over the whole LW spectrum,
    and no absorption of solar radiation except at the surface,
    and the only flux is radiation (no convection),
    at equilibrium, each layer j (let j=0 be the surface, so that j=0 to n), being isothermal, emits the same flux sigma*Tj^4 both upwards and downwards (but no net downward flux at the surface)
    The net flux Fj from j to j+1 is sigma*[Tj^4-T(j+1)^4]. The flux from the top layer is Fn = sigma*Tn^4, which must be equal to the absorbed solar flux, so Tn must be equal to Te. Since all solar radiation occurs at j=0, all Fj from j=0 to j=n must be equal. Thus, (dividing all terms by sigma):

    Fn/sigma = T(n-1)^4 – Tn^4 = Tn^4

    T(n-1)^4 = 2*Tn^4

    Fn/sigma = Tj^4 – T(j+1)^4 for all j from 0 to n-1.

    Tj^4 = Fn/sigma + T(j+1)^4 = Tn^4 + T(j+1)^4

    T0^4 = Tn^4 + T1^4 = Tn^4 + (Tn^4 + T2^4) = … = (1+n)*Tn^4

    T0 is the surface temperature Ts, and Tn is Te, so

    Ts^4 = (1+n)*Te^4

    Which agrees with Hartmann, “Global Physical Climatology”, 1994, p.62.

    To approximate the number of such layers, one could consider that the average distance a photon travels from emission to absorption (which is a unit optical thickness in the direction of travel, assuming no scattering or reflection). Because the flux of photons includes photons moving slantwise, the average vertical distance is actually 2/3 of a unit of vertical optical thickness if the radiation is isotropic (assuming optical properties are horizontally invariant) (see below). So if the formula Ts^4 = (1+n)*Te is meant to approximate an atmosphere (with all solar heating occuring at the surface, no convection (or conduction), purely emitting/absorbing greenhouse), perhaps (?) n **might** be approximately equal to 3/2 * optical thickness (while the radiation is not isotropic at any one vertical level, the more vertically-propagagting photons found at a higher level might ‘be isotropic’ in a sense with photons at different angles above (for downward photons) or below (for upward photons) – though I haven’t worked out the consequences of that). The fact that the T^4 changes linearly over vertical distance measured in optical thickness (except within the surface material) (and except for the skin temperature being greater than zero; see end of paragraph) helps, since the net flux between photon emission and photon absorption will be linearly proportional to vertical distance from emission to absorption and thus the average net flux should be equal to the net flux that would occur if all photons travelled the average distance from emission to absorption. **However**, this reasoning might not apply at/near the surface and top of the atmopshere; that might be one source of error. One issue: in a real atmosphere with optical thickness invariant over the LW spectrum at all heights (and quasi-LTE applying up to the highest levels considered), there will be a minimum nonzero ‘skin’ temperature within an optically-thin sliver of the highest layer, which is lower than Te but greater than zero; T doesn’t gradually go to zero going out to space in this model.

    (There will be a skin temperature in general, but the formula for “Tskin” when optical properties don’t vary with wavelength in the LW spectrum is Tskin^4 = 1/2 * Te^4; see Hartmann, p. 62)

    average vertical distance a photon travels (for isotropic radiation), in units of vertical optical thickness:
    in the vertical direction: 1
    at an angle q from vertical: cos(q)
    fraction of contribution of total flux per unit area that is between angles q and q+dq from vertical:
    1/pi * cos(q)*sin(q)*2*pi*dq
    averaged for isotropic radiation through a unit area:
    1/pi * integral from 0 to pi/2 of [ cos(q) * cos(q)*sin(q)*2*pi*dq ]
    2 * integral from 0 to pi/2 of [ cos(q) * cos(q)*sin(q)*dq ]
    1 * integral from 0 to pi/2 of [ cos(q) * sin(2*q)*dq ]
    1/2 * integral from 0 to pi/2 of [ (sin(q) + sin(3*q))*dq ]
    1/2 * (cos(0) – cos(pi/2)) + 1/6 * (cos(0) – cos(3*pi/2))
    = 2/3

    (used two of these formulas:)

    2*cos(a)*sin(b) = sin(b-a) + sin(b+a)

    2*cos(a)*cos(b) = cos(b-a) + cos(b+a)

    2*sin(a)*sin(b) = -cos(b-a) + cos(b+a)

  50. 600
    John E. Pearson says:

    581 CFU and Patrick: NOw that you two love-birds have agreed to agree I will try one more time, my question.

    I actually spent more time than I can justify reading Goody today, (the big expensive Goody: “Atmospheric Radiation”) which unfortunately evaporated when my laptop crashed. Forget about earth. forget about water. take a bone dry venus with no atmosphere at all. Give it the venusian albedo that we all know and love. It has a surface temperature. I dunno what it is but say 250K or thereabouts. T_s(0) ~= 250K. Now start adding CO2. Each time you add a dollop of CO2 wait forever and then measure the mean surface temperature. This gives a function: T_s([CO2]) for Venus. What is that function? Motl claims it’s logarithmic for P_{CO2} between .38 millibar and 90 bar. I don’t believe him. I think that random band models say that optical thickness starts off linear in CO2 and then roll over into square root. If you take the relation that T_s^4 =(1+t)T_e^4 seriously (which Goody sort of does, I think, t being the optical thickness) and you take t \propto CO2/(1+b sqrt(CO2)) Then you end up with an equilibrium surface temperature that goes as somewhere between the 4th and 8th root of CO2 which of course swamps the logarithmic dependence that is frequently quoted. But I’m shooting from the hip here and know full well that I might be completely wrong. What I do know is that there is precious little justification for assuming a fixed temperature increase for each doubling of CO2 over 18 doublings. surely somewhere someone has calculated T_s(CO2) for a pure CO2 atmosphere for a venus-like planet ?