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Solar

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. 601
    Patrick 027 says:

    … That formula for skin temperature assumes that solar heating of that layer with the skin temperature is zero.

  2. 602
    Brian Dodge says:

    John (Burgy) Burgeson — 13 May 2010 @ 4:47 PM
    You might also point out to your friend that the rate of melt is much higher this year. I downloaded the data from http://www.ijis.iarc.uaf.edu/seaice/extent/plot.csv and calculated the rate of melt from the respective peaks through day 132 of each year and got the following:

    Year km^2/ day melt from max through day 132
    2010 52057
    2009 27281
    2008 33970
    2007 29792
    2006 28763
    2005 29340

    There’s lots of thin first year ice compared to prior years, and it melts fast once the temperatures get high enough – its much easier to defrost the freezer if its only got 1/4 inch of ice instead of 3/4 inch.

  3. 603
    t_p_hamilton says:

    John E Pearson:”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 ?”

    Venus’s surface is so hot, the much higher frequency asymmetric stretch band takes on more importance than it does on earth. Also, water is a huge greenhouse gas – it does not recondense on Venus. In essence – it is the heat and the humidity that makes Venus uncomfortable. :)

  4. 604
    Rattus Norvegicus says:

    Except that there isn’t any water vapor to speak of in the Venusian atmosphere. It is about .0002 percent.

  5. 605
    John E. Pearson says:

    601 Patrick said: “That formula for skin temperature assumes that solar heating of that layer with the skin temperature is zero.”

    I’m not sure if you’re talking about the formula that i wrote on the previous page or not. That formula:

    T_s^4 = (1+t) T_e^4

    It’s not an equation for skin temperature. My eyes aren’t so good at reading fine print. I thought Goody had written “T_s” for surface temperature. What he wrote was “T_g” for ground temperature. I didn’t know that T_s was reserved for skin temperature. sorry about that.

    T_e is the black body temperature: T_e = (S (1-A)/4 sigma)^{1/4} where S is the Solar flux and A is the albedo and sigma is the stefan boltzmann constant. THe formula gives the surface temperature in terms of the number of emitting layers in the atmosphere (t) and the emitting temperature, T_e. Goody identifies “t” with the optical thickness. I understand that this leaves out all sorts of physics, but still it ought to give an answer. I’d be curious to know what the answer is. I think one could sort of kluge cooling due to convection. It looks to me though that the optical thickness varies far more strongly with CO2 than logarithmically. I haven’t worked through the random band model but as i understand it it assumes that the absorption bands obey a Poisson distribution which results in an optical thickness that starts off linear in X and then rolls over into sqrt(X) (where X is the amount of absorbing stuff) and that it is pretty good for real substances. It seems to me that it would easily give a crude approximation to venusian temperature that wouldn’t be horrible. Surely with all the smart people working on this stuff it has been done? It would be a pleasure to read it. If I’m dead wrong about this I’ll at least be stupid at a slightly higher level than i was a couple dyas ago.

  6. 606
    Richard Steckis says:

    603
    t_p_hamilton says:
    13 May 2010 at 9:46 PM

    John E Pearson:”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 ?”

    Venus’s surface is so hot, the much higher frequency asymmetric stretch band takes on more importance than it does on earth. Also, water is a huge greenhouse gas – it does not recondense on Venus. In essence – it is the heat and the humidity that makes Venus uncomfortable. :)”

    There is almost no water vapour on venus. Therefore it plays no role as a greenhouse gas on that planet.

  7. 607
  8. 608
    Sekerob says:

    Brian Dodge, 13 May 2010 at 9:10 PM

    Been plotting the same with JAXA data and of course a staunch aint true-ist said it was still within normal ‘range’, whatever that meant, but he stayed very mum when presented with this new chart from the Uni Washington:

    http://psc.apl.washington.edu/ArcticSeaiceVolume/images/SPIOMASIceVolumeAnomalyCurrent.png

    They wrote to update the graph frequently. Spread out as 1 meter thick ice, that’s 8 million km square missing in the Arctic… and then it turned ominously silent. A too inconvenient truth I suppose.

  9. 609
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Walter, on REbunking, you were posting when GKarst and Rod B were last going on about how the ice was growing and when told that the volume was lower, there was all that argument about whether they could measure thickness of ice (and their response was “it could be isostatic rebound or something under the mantle moving…”).

    So there the argument about growing ice was debunked.

    Yes, YOU never posted on there as far as I recall, but the argument was debunked.

    Going through that all again is REbunking.

    And that argument about “sea ice growing! Global Cooling!” has been debunked so many times.

    This is also why they’re called zombie arguments: the argument is brought up by one zombie (“brains!). That zombie is given a 10-gauge. Then it comes back in another (different) zombie (“braaaains!”). Repeat ad nauseum corpulenta.

  10. 610
    Martin A says:

    Completely Fed Up:

    Trying to understand. Does this mean that if some C14 is removed from that atmosphere (eg by dissolving in the sea, being absorbed by plants), some C12 is then released into the atmosphere as a result? [perhaps because of saturation of the sea with CO2?]

    So if I inject x tonnes of radiocarbon CO2 into the atmosphere and, N years later, there is only x/2 tonnes remaining in the atmosphere this does *not* indicate that the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is N years?

    (Assuming assuming N yr << 5730 , the half life of C14 in years, also neglecting the difference of physical properties between compounds of C14 and C12.)

    How about we try that? (snip) This one is easy to show. Just stop burning fossil fuels and measure how the CO2 reduces!>

    This assumes that CO2 levels are not varying because of other causes than burning fossil fuels – right?

    Thank you for your help.

  11. 611
    Walter Crain says:

    hank,
    thanks again. and again, that john cook site is great. it’s written just at my level…. i do understand the tentative nature of scientific conclusions. i understand every “conclusion” is held with varying degrees of certainty – and i’m ok with that. and it looks like there’s considerable uncertainty here. it’s good to see that there is pretty good agreement all the way up to the “divergence”. and it’s good to see that only a few series are divergent.

    CFU,
    i understand you’re completely fed up….but sheesh…chill out. i appreciate the substance of your replies.

  12. 612

    WC 572,

    SOME of the tree rings deviate at that point, not all or even most. People are researching why.

  13. 613

    Okay, I got something way wrong.

    I officially withdraw my certainty that human civilization will end in the next 40 years. I may be right, but the proof isn’t as clear as I thought.

    I was going from two figures, always a risky thing to do–Dai et al. (2004)’s assertion that the fraction of land in “severe drought” by the PDSI (< -3.0) was 12% in 1970 and 30% in 2002. I extrapolated linearly, then geometrically. Dumb. In effect, cherry-picking, although I didn't know it.

    I've been emailing back-and-forth with Dr. Dai on how to use his raw data, which he has thoughtfully provided on the internet. I finally put it together and created annual series for (a) mean global PDSI and (b) global land fraction in severe drought for the years 1870-2005 (N = 136). I get about 26% of variance of the latter accounted for with a quadratic fit, and the mean prediction for reaching 70% in drought (my threshold for when human agriculture collapses) isn't met until the year 2150.

    The series jogs up and down quite a lot. The trend is up, but not nearly as simply as I thought.

    I'm still working on what accounts for the values, and I may come up with better estimates later. But for now, I can no longer honestly maintain that human civilization will end in 40 years or less due to increasing drought. I'm back to "I don't know when it will end, I just know it will if we keep burning fossil fuels."

  14. 614
    Hank Roberts says:

    Martin, try here:
    http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~archer/reprints/montenegro.2007.fate_CO2.pdf

    You can find much confusion about carbon-14 on the john daly and Marshall Institute pages, going back a decade or more, including correspondence with some climate scientists trying to straighten them out. This is one of those areas where a few words on a blog don’t suffice, or none I’ve found. If anyone knows of a FAQ on it, a pointer would be useful.

    Walter, the main point is that the divergence is very recent; something changed in the last decade or three. You may well be able to guess what’s the most likely explanation, and why a lot of confusion is being thrown into the discussion by people who don’t like that possibility.

  15. 615
    John E. Pearson says:

    607: Hank asked: a pure CO2 atmosphere … Venus
    “Did you Google/Scholar for those phrases?”

    Of course I did. I even posted links to some of those hits. But none of them have the thing I am asking about which is what is the equilibrium ground temperature for T_g(CO2) for a pure CO2 atmosphere on a venus-like planet.

    Eventually I came across Barton’s page: http://bartonpaullevenson.com/NewPlanetTemps.html

    which is just the sort of thing I had in mind. Barton used a square root dependence for optical thickness as a function of [CO2]. I didn’t get very far in the random band model in Goody (Atmospheric Radiation) before my laptop crashed but I’m pretty sure the random band model gives something like ahhh.
    Here is a nice page on it: http://scienceofdoom.com/2010/02/05/co2-an-insignificant-trace-gas-part-four/ who says: “and especially important, it will help you see the problems with a flawed approach. There are lots of these on the internet. There isn’t a nice tidy analytical expression which links radiative forcing to CO2 concentration, and which separates out CO2 from water vapor. ”
    I’ve given up on the nice tidy analytical expression although I think Barton has one which presumably came from one of his references. This science-of-doom site is pretty good. He’s going to explain in terms that a simpleton like me can understand http://scienceofdoom.com/2010/02/10/co2-–-an-insignificant-trace-gas-part-five/ This one has the awesome section: “Where does the IPCC Logarithmic Function come from?” http://scienceofdoom.com/2010/02/19/co2-an-insignificant-trace-gas-part-seven-the-boring-numbers/ He says: “this isn’t a derived expression which comes from simplifying down the radiative transfer equations in one fell swoop! Instead, it comes from running lots of values of CO2 through the standard 1d model we have discussed, and plotting the numbers on a graph:” The really cool thing is that he provides hooks into the literature (i.e. references) for everything he says.

  16. 616
    John E. Pearson says:

    Of course, the upshot of my post to the science of doom links is that Motl’s claim that dT ~ log(CO2) is nonsense. That result holds for earth. Not venus. And the curve shows a logarithmic profile for [CO2] ranging from 300ppm to 1000ppm. The claim that such a relationship comes from Beer’s law and that it holds over many orders of magnitude is pure nonsense.

  17. 617
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “i appreciate the substance of your replies.”

    Thanks.

    “i understand you’re completely fed up….but sheesh…chill out.”

    Well I could ask the same. Cut back on the drama queen. “Oh noes! We have some uncertainty!!!” is being a drama queen.

    Chill out and put that uncertainty in context and accept that there is only a manufactured problem.

  18. 618
    SecularAnimist says:

    BPL wrote: “… 70% in drought (my threshold for when human agriculture collapses) …”

    I’m curious as to the basis for that particular threshold.

    It would seem to make a difference which 70 percent of land is in drought.

  19. 619

    Ray @ 554:

    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.

    I disagree. I think the problem has nothing to do with refusing to RECOGNIZE objective reality, and much more with not having a clue how to evaluate what is or isn’t objective reality.

    And while bashing the American education system is off-topic, I blame the American educational system: telling children they are “wrong” has been unpopular for the past 30+ years. It might harm their self-esteem, and it’s “better” for children to have high self-esteem than critical thinking skills that can be used to evaluate “correct” versus “incorrect” answers.

    (That and this weird religious belief that G-d somehow isn’t going to allow us to destroy the planet, when the bible says nothing of the sort. I’d argue that Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” speaks to the rewards for good stewardship, not that I believe in Jesus — much more into “WWMD” than “WWJD”)

  20. 620

    BPL @ 613:

    I officially withdraw my certainty that human civilization will end in the next 40 years. I may be right, but the proof isn’t as clear as I thought.

    Glad to see the correction ;)

    If you’re interested in more reliable gloom-and-doom scenarios, look into food production as a function of liquid fuels availability. There’s good evidence (see Google …) for the world being at to slightly past Peak Oil. I think that’ll give you the evidence for “The Sky is Falling!” that you need.

  21. 621
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Trying to understand. Does this mean that if some C14 is removed from that atmosphere (eg by dissolving in the sea, being absorbed by plants), some C12 is then released into the atmosphere as a result?”

    Rather it’s that the release of C12 vs C14 depends on the proportion of C12 vs C14 in the biological reservoir.

    Taking the numbers for illustration only:

    5 units in the biosphere. 1 C14, 4 C12.
    5 units in atmosphere. 1 C14, 4 C12

    When the biosphere lets go, it’s 4x more likely to be C12 than C14. Therefore the atmosphere PROPORTION of C14 won’t change.

    Boom.

    Now it’s

    5 units in the biosphere. 1 C14, 4 C12
    5 units in atmosphere. 2 C14, 3 C12

    Doubled in the atmosphere.

    But when the biosphere lets go, it’s 4x more likely to be C12 than C14. Therefore more likely to be C12 than it is in the atmosphere. This dilutes C14 concentrations.

    When in this case the atmosphere deposits carbon, it’s twice as likely to C12 than C14, so it’s more likely to let go of a C14 atom than it was before, reducing the amount of C14 again.

    Eventually it will get to equilibrium where

    5 units in biosphere: 1.5 units C14, 3.5 units C12
    5 units in atmosphere: 1.5 units C14, 3.5 units C12

    Since that graph shows ATMOSPHERIC concentrations of C14 compared to C12, the C14 concentration measured will drop. this has not sequestered any carbon whatsoever.

    Therefore the reduction of C14 from the bomb tests measured in the atmosphere isn’t going to measure the sequestration of carbon out of the atmosphere.

  22. 622
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “There is almost no water vapour on venus. Therefore it plays no role as a greenhouse gas on that planet.”

    There’s almost no water vapour on earth (it’s a trace gas).

    There’s almost no CO2 on earth. There’s almost no O3 on earth.

    This doesn’t stop them being an effect.

    tp may be wrong, but your reason isn’t the reason why.

  23. 623
    SecularAnimist says:

    BPL wrote: “I officially withdraw my certainty that human civilization will end in the next 40 years.”

    Somehow that reminds me of my childhood — growing up during the Cold War (e.g. Cuban missile crisis) and knowing that human civilization could end in 40 minutes on any given day.

    I suppose it should be a relief to think that we have as much as 40 years — and maybe even more.

    Of course during the Cold War, it was a question of whether someone would “push the button”, and no one did (at least not so far; there are still thousands of nuclear weapons locked and loaded and ready to launch).

    In the present case of global warming, we know we have already, in effect, “pushed the button”, and we are just waiting for the air raid sirens to start wailing.

  24. 624
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “I disagree. I think the problem has nothing to do with refusing to RECOGNIZE objective reality, and much more with not having a clue how to evaluate what is or isn’t objective reality.”

    I think so too.

    It’s a deliberate ploy by the powerful to ensure they retain it: make everything a matter of opinion and you can stifle any debate by merely disagreeing. Or paying someone to disagree.

    We had the MTV generation where attention spans were reduced to sub-goldfish levels.

    Now we have the Fox generation, where anyone who knows something is elitist and anyone who disagrees is closed minded and all facts are merely opinions.

    Then big up the “ordinary joe” mentality and make the lazy comfortable with their ignorance. When that’s achieved enough to be visible, make them PROUD of their ignorance.

    Now you have a pool of people who, proud of their ignorance, afraid of being wrong and scornful of people who “know things” that will argue down any inconvenient facts for you.

    Witness the teabaggers fighting for more bank profits against their best interests: all the talking heads had to do was raise the spectre of Gubment Inteverntion Leads To Communism and they do your work for you.

  25. 625
    t_p_hamilton says:

    Steckis said:”There is almost no water vapour on venus. Therefore it plays no role as a greenhouse gas on that planet.”

    Icarus Volume 150, Issue 1, March 2001, Pages 19-37
    The Recent Evolution of Climate on Venus

    Mark A. Bullock and David H. Grinspoon

    Department of Space Studies, Southwest Research Institute, 1050 Walnut Street, Suite 426, Boulder, Colorado, 80302, f1
    Received 26 May 1998;
    revised 5 October 2000.
    Available online 4 March 2002.

    Abstract

    The present climate of Venus is controlled by an efficient carbon dioxide–water greenhouse effect and by the radiative properties of its global cloud cover. Both the greenhouse effect and clouds are sensitive to perturbations in the abundance of atmospheric water vapor and sulfur gases. Planetary-scale processes involving the release, transport, and sequestering of volatiles affect these abundances over time, driving changes in climate.

    We have developed a numerical model of the climate evolution of Venus. Atmospheric temperatures are calculated using a one-dimensional two-stream radiative–convective model that treats the transport of thermal infrared radiation in the atmosphere and clouds. These radiative transfer calculations are the first to utilize high-temperature, high-resolution spectral databases for the calculation of infrared absorption and scattering in Venus’ atmosphere. We use a chemical/microphysical model of Venus’ clouds to calculate changes in cloud structure that result from variations in atmospheric water and sulfur dioxide. Atmospheric abundances of water, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide change under the influence of the exospheric escape of hydrogen, outgassing from the interior, and heterogeneous reactions with surface minerals.

    Radar images from the Magellan mission show that the surface of Venus has been geologically active on a global scale, yet its sparse impact cratering record is almost pristine. This geologic record on Venus is consistent with an epoch of rapid plains emplacement 600–1100 Myr ago. Our models show that intense volcanic outgassing of sulfur dioxide and water during this time would have resulted in the formation of massive sulfuric acid/water clouds and the cooling of the surface for 100–300 Myr. The thick clouds would have subsequently given way to high, thin water clouds as atmospheric sulfur dioxide was lost to reactions with the surface. Surface temperatures approaching 900 K would have been reached 200–500 Myr after the onset of volcanic resurfacing. Evolution to current conditions would have proceeded due to loss of atmospheric water at the top of the atmosphere, ongoing low-level volcanism, and the reappearance of sulfuric acid/water clouds. We find that the maintenance of sulfuric acid/water clouds on Venus today requires sources of outgassed sulfur active in the past 20–50 Myr, in contrast with the 1.9 Myr as determined from geochemical arguments alone (B. Fegley and R. G. Prinn 1989, Nature337, 55–58).

  26. 626
    t_p_hamilton says:

    Rattus Norvegis said:”Except that there isn’t any water vapor to speak of in the Venusian atmosphere. It is about .0002 percent.”

    0.0002 percent of a huge atmosphere. CO2 on earth is 0.038% of a 1 atm,

  27. 627

    OT:

    Vermont State Climatologist: Why Is That Link Still There?

    The VSC is prominently linking a Fraser Institute document that is filled with errors and misleading/missing information. Although alerted to this over 6 months ago, the link is still there! Story detailed in link above.

  28. 628
    Ray Ladbury says:

    FCH@619, I’m afraid I agree with you on our educational system. The rabble over at Watts-up-‘is-arse is a prime example of people making it through our educational system without learning the very important lesson that they are stupid.

    Actually, what they remind me of are the pre-med punks I used to have in algebra-based physics who get the physics on the exam or homework entirely wrong, but then claim they deserve partial credit for throwing in some Greek letters.

  29. 629
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “FCH@619, I’m afraid I agree with you on our educational system.”

    Ray, I think you ought to consider not the educational system (which is run down for other reasons: mostly “why should I pay for other people’s kids’ education?”) but the attitude of the *adults*.

    Remember too, the youth are more likely to find AGW both real and worrisome. The youth are also more likely to use the internet to locate many sources of information and actually investigate claims. Even with the echo chamber, most anti arguments are so weak and the counter so obvious, any honest attempt to research kills many of the ditto arguments around.

  30. 630
    Nick Dearth says:

    CFU @ 629

    I try to be that optimistic, then I hold my nose and visit the comments section on an article like this http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100514/ap_on_sc/climate I start to get infuriated and go to respond, only to give up fighting the incredible volume of wrong comments. It really is substantial and leads me to be cynical. Sometimes I spend a lot of time going through the comments here and forget what it’s like “out there”. The difference is incredible.

  31. 631
    Septic Matthew says:

    613, BPL: I officially withdraw my certainty that human civilization will end in the next 40 years. I may be right, but the proof isn’t as clear as I thought.

    I am glad to read that. There are still other risks: EU and US debt; unions of government employees (including teachers’ unions); Islamist militarism; HIV/AIDS, malaria, extensively drug-resistant TB, influenza; the boy armies of Africa; the end of cheap energy. I am not facetious: these are low-probability risks, but not totally negligible over the 40-year span that you mention.

    Consider the boy armies of Africa: they do not now look like a threat to Egypt, Sudan or S. Africa, but they destroyed the modern economy of Zimbabwe under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, and they seem to be spreading — it depends on which recent reports are most reliable.

    In specific locales there are other threats, such as the threat of earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

    I only mention this because I think it is unwise to write of the threat of AGW as though it is the only potentially devastating threat.

  32. 632
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Barton Paul Levenson says: 14 May 2010 at 7:18 AM

    Thank you for quantifying how we are not significantly doomed, yet.

  33. 633
    SecularAnimist says:

    CFU wrote: “Ray, I think you ought to consider not the educational system … but the attitude of the *adults*.”

    Here’s something to consider when thinking about why and how people form their views of “objective reality”.

    Earlier this month, 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 11 Nobel laureates, signed a letter defending climate science against politically and financially motivated attacks. The letter said in part:

    We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet […]

    There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend […]

    Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence […] there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change.

    The letter was submitted to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal for consideration as an op-ed piece.

    ALL THREE NEWSPAPERS DECLINED TO PRINT IT.

    Note that the Washington Post has seen fit to publish op-eds on climate change by Sarah Palin, George Will and other so-called “conservative pundits”, but did not think that an op-ed signed by 255 leading scientists was fit to print. Likewise the New York Times — which routinely runs front-page advertisements from ExxonMobil. And of course the Wall Street Journal has printed one anti-science denialist screed after another on its op-ed pages.

    The letter was published in the journal Science — where it will be ignored by the US mass media and pass largely unnoticed by the US public.

    Mis-education continues long after graduation.

  34. 634
    Rattus Norvegicus says:

    CFU,

    WV is typically found in concentrations around 10x of CO2 (~4,000ppmv or so). On Venus it is something like 2ppmv.

  35. 635
    Hank Roberts says:

    > I think it is unwise to write of the threat of AGW as though
    > it is the only potentially devastating threat.

    Have you any example of any such cluelessness anywhere, anytime?
    Citation needed.

    In other news, it is unwise to write of the taste of chocolate as the only potentially enjoyable experience. Life is unalterably more complex.

  36. 636
    Septic Matthew says:

    624, Completely Fed Up: Witness the teabaggers fighting for more bank profits against their best interests: all the talking heads had to do was raise the spectre of Gubment Inteverntion Leads To Communism and they do your work for you.

    I am surprised that the moderators let this in. Not only is it ignorant, insulting and obscene, but it dilutes the main message of RealClimate that you know a lot of atmospheric science.

  37. 637
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 625, 626 t_p_hamilton says: VERY interesting! Thanks!

    I think 0.38 % for Earth is the water mass fraction; molar fraction being somewhere around 0.5 % – and that’s the whole atmosphere; it’s relatively concentrated near the surface at lower latitudes in particular.

    So is 0.0002 % for Venus a mass fraction or a molar fraction? And how much of that is way up high, where it has the biggest impact on outgoing LW radiation (OLR)?

    Of course, we also have to multiply 90 bars/ 1 bar by Earth’s gravitational acceleration / Venus’s gravitational acceleration to get the mass ratio…

  38. 638
    SecularAnimist says:

    Septic Matthew wrote: “There are still other risks: EU and US debt; unions of government employees (including teachers’ unions) … I only mention this because I think it is unwise to write of the threat of AGW as though it is the only potentially devastating threat.”

    I am interested in just exactly how you believe teachers’ unions threaten to cause mass extinctions, continent-wide mega-droughts, the failure of agriculture worldwide and ensuing global famine, the loss of fresh water supplies for billions of people, the destruction of oceanic food webs, and global ecological meltdown.

  39. 639
    Donna says:

    – Nick Dearth @ around 630

    The yahoo news comments sections are often seriously disturbing. While there are some thoughtful factual comments there, they always seem to get buried amongst total nonsense.
    And when people try to correct the nonsense – it just gets hidden in the replies where no one sees them or vanishes in the long line of posts.
    Every denialsphere comment on climate is there and the commentors reenforce each others ignorance.
    I sometimes read Wired magazine’s science articles and the same behavior of instantly attacking any article that mentions global warming is there.
    I guess once being environmentally conscious got labeled “leftist” and “liberal” then in today’s political environment, the attack dogs are out to kill no matter that the issue could care less what your political stripes are.

  40. 640
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew,
    I know of no one who is suggesting we ignore those other threats. I am particularly concerned about climate change for one major reason: I cannot bound the risk. There are some scenarios with nonzero probability that if played out would result in an absolutely massive dieback of human population and the end of human civilization. I cannot preclude those based on what I know of the probability calculus of climate change at present.

    None of the other threats you mention can come close to having such an impact. Unbounded risks worry me.

  41. 641
    SecularAnimist says:

    And also how is it that teachers’ unions will cause the displacement of hundreds of millions of people from low-lying coastal areas, including many of the USA’s major cities?

  42. 642
    Hank Roberts says:

    > teachers’ unions threaten

    I think what’s threatened by teachers is well explained here.
    It’s the belief “that the Market is the superior information processor par excellence…. that science progresses when everyone can buy the type of science they like ….”

    http://www.ssrc.org/publications/view/EEE91C8F-AC35-DE11-AFAC-001CC477EC70/ (abstract)
    http://www.ssrc.org/workspace/images/crm/new_publication_3/%7Beee91c8f-ac35-de11-afac-001cc477ec70%7D.pdf (full text)

  43. 643
    CM says:

    Barton #613, I’m glad you worked that out.

    Now if only I wasn’t raising a family in one of those places the models predict will dry out. (Actually, to be specific, worse: one of those places that may not dry out, but whose bigger, badder neighboring countries will.)

  44. 644
    Martin A says:

    Completely Fed Up: Many thanks – I get your point. Including that there are several processes each with its own half-life and equilibrium level – all of which will be interdependent.

    But it seems to me that the time constant (related directly to the half-life) for the atmospheric C14 curve will also be the time constant for all atmospheric CO2 . (Physical differences due to the different atomic weights being neglected.)

    If you’ll excuse the use of electrical analogies, the system can be represented as:

    * A capacitor Ca, representing the atmosphere’s capacity to hold CO2. The voltage across this capacitor represents the mass of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    * A capacitor Cb, representing the biosphere’s capacity to hold CO2. The voltage across this capacitor represents the mass of CO2 in the biosphere.

    One end of each capacitor is grounded.

    * A resistor R connects ‘hot’ ends of the two capacitors. The current flowing via the resistor from Ca to Cb represents the flow of CO2 from the atmosphere to the biosphere and the current flowing from Cb to Ca represents the flow of CO2 from the biosphere to the atmosphere.

    In equilibrium, the two currents are equal and their sum is zero.

    If I now dump some CO2 in the atmosphere, this is equivalent to instantly increasing the voltage to which Ca is charged. The voltage across Ca will then decrease, following an exponential curve proportional to exp(-t/T), until ultimately the system is once again in equilibrium, with a new steady voltage across Ca and a new steady voltage across Cb. T depends in a simple way on R, Ca and Cb.

    T, the time-constant of the system, depends only on the resistor value and the capacitor values. It does not depend on voltages to which the capacitors are charged. Hence my belief that the time constant for transfer of all CO2 from the atmosphere to the biosphere is the same as the time constant given in the reference for the transfer of carbon14 CO2.

    A more complicated analogy could be produced with a capacitor to represent the capacity of the seas to hold CO2 and so on.

    I hope this makes sense. If anyone spots a fallacy, I’d be pleased for it to be pointed out.

  45. 645

    Septic Matthew @ 630:

    The problem is that many of those problems are self-limiting either in duration or scope. If we don’t start using alternatives to liquid fuels, the transportation needed to move goods and materials to build the alternatives is going to be negatively impacted.

    In contrast, okay, so Zimbabwe has had a civil war and some huge number of people have died. And that affects other countries, or other generations, =how=?

  46. 646
    GFW says:

    A little tangent to the solar hot water discussion. Yesterday I painted part of my roof bright white. (The part that had been flat black tar, using a special roofing silicone.) It might take a while for this to pay for itself in terms of reduced cooling costs, but it’s a better investment than most, and is a small personal contribution to planetary albedo. Anyway, it was rather impressive how hot the black surface was despite the air temperature being much lower. So I’ve no doubt that we could save an enormous amount of energy as a nation with solar pre-heaters.

  47. 647

    RS 606: There is almost no water vapour on venus. Therefore it plays no role as a greenhouse gas on that planet.

    BPL: There is about 300 pascals of water vapor pressure on Venus, compared to 392 on Earth. It’s enough to add about 1.6 to the semigray IR optical depth. Of course, the CO2 adds about 86, so the water vapor contributes only a couple of percent. But not nothing.

  48. 648
    Septic Matthew says:

    638, Secular Animist: I am interested in just exactly how you believe teachers’ unions threaten to cause mass extinctions, continent-wide mega-droughts, the failure of agriculture worldwide and ensuing global famine, the loss of fresh water supplies for billions of people, the destruction of oceanic food webs, and global ecological meltdown.

    1. the threat is to civilization.

    2. the threat is very low.

    3. public employees unions (including teachers’ unions) compel policies that lead to bankrupting governments, dependence on governments, lead to reduced economic growth, which in turns lead to reduced ability to respond to financial panics and natural disasters — as in Greece, Argentina, Detroit and California. Of course, those are not “the end of civilization”, but they are as close to “the end of civilization” as AGW is likely to produce.

    4. the threat is slight, about equal to the threat posed to democracy by big business.

  49. 649
    Jim Eager says:

    MartinA, you are forgetting that the atmosphere, ocean and biosphere constantly exchange CO2. Humans have injected around 320 Gt of fossil carbon and counting into not just the atmosphere, but into the entire active carbon cycle. It’s not the residence time of any individual CO2 molecule in the atmosphere that maters, but how long atmospheric CO2 levels will remain elevated while that massive slug of CO2 remains in the carbon cycle. Remember, the only permanent removal from the cycle takes place on geologic time scales.

  50. 650
    Timothy Chase says:

    Off Topic

    This is a little off topic, but Climate Denial Crock of the Week needs your help. Nothing more than an online vote on your part can insure that it is supported (by a $5000 grant) for a year.

    For those of you who are not familiar with it, Climate Crock is a weekly video put out by Peter Sinclair that typically picks some point of denialist propaganda (but recently devoted two issues to tearing down “Lord” Monckton), then devastatingly critiques it. The critiques are highly informative, told with humor and very approachable. The videos themselves? Very professional productions.

    To give you a taste of what it covers, here are some of the more recent myths its critiqued (… and in parentheses the titles of the episodes that covered them):

    Stolen CRU emails ‘prove’ … (“Smacking the Hack Attack”), Fighting climate change hurts the poor (“Denial was a River in Africa”), The Medieval Warm Period proves climate change is natural (“The Medieval Warming Crock”), The EPA censored scientist Alan Carlin (“Creepy at the EPA”), Arctic ice is recovering (“Polar Ice Update: Arctic Perennial Ice and Methane”, “Ice Area vs Volume’: Debunking the ‘Ice is back to 1979 levels’ idiocy”), The climate models are unreliable (“This Year’s Model: Climate models and modeling”), Climate change is good for plants and crops (“Don’t it make my Green World Brown: CO2 and plant growth”), Water vapour, not CO2 is driving climate change (“The Big Mist Take”), CO2 is not driving climate change (“Sense from Deniers on CO2? Don’t hold your breath…”), The ‘lag’ shows CO2 does not cause climate change (“The ‘Temp leads Carbon’ Crock”)…

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