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A day when Hell was frozen

Filed under: — rasmus @ 7 February 2008

“Hell train station” I was honoured to be invited to the annual regional conference for Norwegian journalists, taking place annually in a small town called ‘Hell’ (Try Earth Google ‘Hell, Norway’). During this conference, I was asked to participate in a panel debate about the theme: ‘Climate – how should we [the media] deal with world’s most pressing issue?’ (my translation from Norwegian; by the way ‘Gods expedition’ means ‘Cargo shipment’ in ‘old’ Norwegian dialect).

This is the first time that I have been invited to such a gathering, and probably the first time that a Norwegian journalists’ conference invited a group of people to discuss the climate issue. My impression was that the journalists more or less now were convinced by the message of the IPCC assessment reports. This can also be seen in daily press news reports where contrarians figure less now than ~5 years ago. But the public seemed to think that the scientists cannot agree on the reality or cause of climate change.

I find that the revelation of a perception of the climate problem within the climate research community that doesn’t match that of the general public problematic. What I learned is that this also seems to be true for the journalists: it was stated that their perception of climate change and its causes were different to the general public too.

The panel in which I participated consisted of a social/political scientist who had investigated how media deals with the issue of climate change and the public perception thereof, a science journalist, an AGW-skeptic, and myself. Despite the name of the place, the debate was fairly civil and well-behaved (although the AGW-skeptic compared climate scientists to mosquitoes, and brought up some ad hominem attacks on Dr. Pachauri).

The science journalist in the panel advocated the practice of reporting on issues that are based on publications from peer reviewed scientific literature. I whole-heartedly concur. I would also advice journalists to do some extensive search on the publication record of the individuals, and consider their affiliations – are they from a reputable place? Also, it’s recommended that they consider which journal in which the article is published – an article on climate published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons is less likely to receive a review of competent experts (peers) than if it were published in a mainstream geophysics journal. Finally, my advice is to try to trace the argument back to its source – does it come from some of those think tanks? But I didn’t get the chance to say this, as the debate was conducted by a moderator whose agenda was more focused on other questions.

Short of telling the journalists to start to read physics in order to understand the issues at hand, I recommended the reading of Spencer Weart’s ‘The Discovery of Global Warming’. The book is an easy read and gives a good background about the climate sciences. It also reveals that a number of arguments still forwarded by AGW-skeptics are quite old and have been answered over time. The book gives the impression of a déjà vu regarding the counter arguments, the worries, politics, and the perceived urgency of the problem. I would also strongly recommend the book for the AGW-skeptics.

One reservation I had regarding the discussion is being cut off when I get into the science and the details. I had the feeling of taking part in a football match where the referee and all the spectators were blind and then tried to convince them that I scored a goal. The problem is that people without scientific training often find it hard to judge who’s right and who’s wrong. It seems that communication skills are more important for convincing the general public that scientific skills. Scientists are usually not renowned for their ability to explain complicated and technical matters, but rather tend to shy off.

I’d suggest that journalists should try to attend the annual conferences such as the European (EMS) and American (AMS) meteorological societies. For learning what’s happening within the research, mingling with scientists/meteorologists, and because these conferences have lot to offer media (e.g. media sessions). Just as journalists go to the Olympics, would it not be natural for journalists to attend these conferences? – but I missed the opportunity to make this suggestion.

Hell seems to be fairly dead on a Sunday afternoon. I almost caught a cold from the freezing wait for the train – although the temperature was barely -3C. This January ranked as the third warmest in Oslo, and I have started to acclimatise myself to all these mild winters (the mountain regions, however, have received an unusually large amount of snow). Our minister of finance was due to attend the meeting to talk about getting grief, but she didn’t make it to Hell due to a snow storm and chaos at the air port (heavy amount of wet snow due to mild winter conditions).

366 Responses to “A day when Hell was frozen”

  1. 351
    Rod B says:

    Hank, I know I sound like a pissant, but 12 inches is how far light, not an electron, travels in a nanosecond.

  2. 352
    Phil. Felton says:

    Re 347

    Yes Hank a foot/nsec is a good approximation, in my laser lab when we needed to synchronise the arrival of two laser pulses we used to make sure that the path lengths were equal to within an inch or so. Similarly if we wanted to delay one pulse wrt another by a few nsec we just made one travel further by 1ft/nsec.

  3. 353
    Eli Rabett says:

    FWIW rules of thumb:

    1 ns = 1 foot
    @1 Torr mean time btw collisions = 100 ns
    1 atm = 2 x 10^19 molecules/cm3

  4. 354
    Eli Rabett says:

    Hank, you are nuts, but a nice nuts. Eli OTOH is carrots.

  5. 355
    Jim Bullis says:

    Thanks for the leads to information, articles sent.

    On a related subject, there is a danger that your efforts to get public response to the global warming problem will be defeated by the move to electric cars and plug-in hybrid variations. You can see how this could develop by looking at the GM plan at
    Here you can see they carefully avoid the CO2 issue in favor of the smog issue which was the known problem 20 years ago. But their solution depending on the EV (page 12)whereby “more energy is shifted to transportation” looks to be headed toward a major increase in the use of coal as a fuel.

    Reasonable people can disagree, but it looks like the very low cost of coal will lead to this outcome. Unfortunately, the public perception that electric cars will be a major improvement relative to global warming seems to be very widespread, even among those who should know better. A key part of the misunderstanding is the confusion between a hybrid like the PRIUS, that effectively uses electric methods to improve efficiency, with plug in variations or all electric vehicles that simply bring in a lot of energy by electric means.

    I think the X PRIZE could be a good force for setting this right. However, they seem to be intent on a simple idea of MPGe, where they define electricity as energy at the point where it comes from the wall plug. I make the argument that this electricity only conveys energy that was produced by a heat engine (as it is for the majority of US electric power production) I am looking for people who remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics who would take a look at the debate at

    My interest is that I am trying to sell a solution where actual vehicle efficiency would lead to a 90% reduction in energy use. Since such a change has to come from aerodynamics, it obviously is going to involve an appearance that is unusual. It is hard enough to sell this without a lot of misinformation about the wonders of electric vehicles getting in the way. (click my name to see more)

    Maybe some of you would look at that X PRIZE site and comment on the energy related facts of life. I think we have a common interest on this.

  6. 356
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Bullis (356) said the very low cost of coal …

    Check again, Jim. The spot prices for coal have been skyrocketing lately. You might also care to read something about Peak Coal.

  7. 357
    Jim Bullis says:

    David B. Benson (357) said “spot prices for coal have been skyrocketing …” and “…read something about Peak Coal.”

    There are several things that confuse the coal price. First, most of the highest priced coal is metallurgical coal, meaning it is used for steel production, though it can be used for power plant fuel. Second, most power plants buy coal on long term contracts, so spot price peaking is less meaningful. Third, many of the contracts are kept secret for competitive reasons. Fourth, the China demand is overwhelming at the moment and will possibly moderate only as China gets more coal mines going. China has quite a lot of coal, but just needs to get the railroads and mines running full tilt. There is a current jam up in the Australian ocean shipping terminals so supplies to China and Japan are limited. This puts more pressure on US prices. But even at the unbelievable peak price, coal is still by far the cheaper fuel for power production.

    As to Peak Coal, if this goes like oil, then in about 15 years, some say, there will be a peaking of coal production. If you look at reserves and production processes, this seems a little off the mark. There is a huge supply of thermal coal (for power plants) in the Powder River Basin, with known reserves expected to last something like 100 years at the present rate of production. Several trains, 80 or so cars of coal in each, depart the Powder River area every day. The big challenge is traffic management by the railroads UP an BNSF, and keeping the tracks from breaking under the loads. If required the present double tracks will be doubled again. The giant trucks that load the trains can be manufactured without any real limit.

    So if we are talking about peak coal, the catastrophe that this web site addresses will be well upon us.

    General Motors, having apparently determined that CO2 is not the issue and that the only emissions of importance are smog causing emissions, seems to be planning on tapping into this massive energy source to drive their electric vehicle systems of the future. Look at page 12 of to see how they are thinking. Looking at this, it seems to me that GM will claim environmental concern, but proceed to build the very large and very profitable large vehicles, like they do now, but they will have electric motors and batteries helping to “shift more energy to transportation.”

    This is not altogether surprising for GM, that must feed its massive production system. It is bad news about how global warming predictions have actually been received by the kind of company that could actually make a difference.

    But on top of this, the confusion that is caused by the enthusiasm for electric vehicles, no matter how inefficient they actually are, is damaging to the efforts to get public interest in appropriate answers, this being important for eventually reaching policy making levels of government, and eventually industry. This confusion is much due to promotion of electric and plug-in hybrids without due honesty in discussing their CO2 impacts.

    And, as mentioned in (356), the aerodynamic answers that have real potential are largely overlooked.

  8. 358
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Bullis (358)— Close, but coal prices are quite open and transparent. For example, the Australian-China agreement is openly renegotiated each year. It just went up about $20 per tonne for the next year. The contracted prices, while lower than the spot prices, rise when the spot prices do.

    Powder River coal trains are now 110 cars long, with 4–5 engines.

    Using the Powder River Basin alone to estimate world coal reserves is clearly a mistake. Rutledge (I think that is the name) at CalTech has stated, I believe, that Peak Coal will be upon the world in about 2025 CE.

  9. 359

    Apropos GM, they have announced that they they will ship the Chevy “Volt” for the 2010 model year. How many, and at what price, remains to be seen. But the short-haul-electric / long-haul-hybrid model they are using for the “Volt” looks to be a better technology than the Prius and Camry, which is itself better than the acceleration-only model used for the Honda Civic and Accord. Small displacement motors can be designed around a specific power output for maximum efficiency. When combined with the ability to plug in and recharge, GM’s system could be the best thing going. But again — how many and at what price.

  10. 360

    Jim, the electric vehicles don’t have to run off of coal-fired power plants. Solar or wind or geothermal or biomass power plants would provide electricity just as well. Electrons don’t know where they came from.

  11. 361
    Jim Bullis says:

    David B. Benson (359)and Barton Paul Levenson (361) — I think the price of coal is an interesting subject, but my only real point is that it is cheap. As such, it must be the reference against which other fuel choices are made, and against which the capital expenditures for solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, have to be compared.

    As far as Peak Coal is concerned, all this means is that half of the world reserves have been used at the peak time. There is still a lot of known reserves, and probably a lot more yet to be found. I don’t think you are suggesting that global warming will be solved because we are going to run out of oil and coal before we ruin things. Peak Oil is very much an economic factor, and should be part of planning what to expect in the price of oil. That seems to be far away for coal, but 2025 could well be the right date. An interesting thing to note is that the consuming public is willing to pay as much as they are for gasoline in order to continue to run large cars. The US Auto industry has clearly noticed this, evidence of this being the offerings planned for the NY Auto Show.

    While electrons don’t know much, the power companies know very well how much they have to pay to get them to move along.

    FurryCatherder (360) I put in the link to the GM plan in (358) to show that the “Volt” may be the beginning of a big shift by the automaker to plug in cars of various types. And if you look at it you might agree that the shift will be to coal fired sources. Then you will also see that not one word about CO2 is used in that plan. Neither is there one word about efficiency.

    There is merit in electric vehicle devices if used to make them more efficient as a whole system that includes the power plants. But now, the rate of CO2 production of that system has to be the main concern.

    It looks like it will be hard to convince people that cars using electric power from coal, much as it would help reduce smog in Los Angeles, will not be a good thing. Cost competitive solar, and all that goes with it seems to be far off.

    [Response: But what is the price of coal? Coal is cheap only because the cost of the damages caused by coal mining, conventional air pollution, and global warming are not factored into the price. Put those costs into the price of coal and other energy sources would start to look pretty competitive. –raypierre]

  12. 362
    Jim Eager says:

    Raypierre inline @ 362: “But what is the price of coal? Coal is cheap only because the cost of the damages caused by coal mining, conventional air pollution, and global warming are not factored into the price.”

    Not only that, Raypierre, but also because it’s biggest competitor, oil, has also been relatively cheap. As the price of oil rises, and as plug-in electric vehicles proliferate and thus increase demand for coal-generated electricity, the price of coal will follow.

  13. 363
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #359 [David Benson] “Rutledge (I think that is the name) at CalTech has stated, I believe, that Peak Coal will be upon the world in about 2025 CE.”

    So he has, but I think based on a rather uncritical use of “Hubbert curves”, which Lynch (2002) “Forecasting oil supply: theory and practice” Michael C. Lynch, The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance 42:373–389 argues is not justified even for oil. I’m not saying coal production won’t peak then – I just don’t think we know.

    Re #362 Response from Raypierre “But what is the price of coal? Coal is cheap only because the cost of the damages caused by coal mining, conventional air pollution, and global warming are not factored into the price. Put those costs into the price of coal and other energy sources would start to look pretty competitive.”

    The use of “competitive” here indicates a confusion between what coal *does* cost – which is what matters for competitivity, with what it *ought* to cost, which is something that we, or governments, have to decide. Certainly, if we want to limit the damage coal causes, we have to stop it being mined and burned in the ways and to the extent it is, and one way of doing that could be to slap a tax on it, but there is no way to calculate objectively how much this tax should be – how much the “externalities” cost when they are as diverse, and as widely distributed across space and time, as those of CO2 production or that of the other major pollutants from coal-burning. How much is a 10% reduction in the chance of losing the Amazon worth, or 1,000,000 additional deaths from respiratory disease over 50 years? The very idea that everything can be reduced to a common monetary standard of value is one of the delusions that have got us into our current predicament.

  14. 364
    David B. Benson says:

    Actually, the price of coal has climbed so far so fast that it is now economic to co-fire some biomass in certain locations. I know of two. Moreso, the latest, highest spot price for metalugical coal, coking grade anthracite, reached $130 per tonne. At those prices it may well be economic to produce biocoal of the same grade. Good for both the planet and the investors’ pocketbooks.

  15. 365
    Jim Bullis says:

    Re: raypierre in line of 362, Benson 357,359, Herder 360, Levenson 361, Eager 363, Gotts 364

    It seems safe to say we all would like to see less coal burned.

    But it is also safe to say that the actual trend over the last few years has been an increase in the percentage of electric power produced by burning coal, and the absolute amount also, of course. And it is not hard to believe the EIA projections as far as they venture to do so, of continuing increase in coal for power.

    There is minor disagreement as to how cheap coal really is and is going to be. How to make it more expensive is not established, but some form of incentive seems to be something that this group would not oppose.

    Enter the electric car. Will this be a good thing or a bad thing? We likely all thought it would be good. Now look at the GM plan at Now the alarm bells!!! should be going off in the heads of all real physicists, especially those that have been thinking about global warming.

    Look especially at page 12 of that link. Note the conclusion that we need to !!!shift energy!!! to transportation, and the the range extended electric vehicle is expected to do that. Further note there is no mention of efficiency improvements.

    Then read further in the plan at the above link. Note that the whole plan completely ignores CO2, but instead they claim credit for emissions that would help air quality (smog) in Southern California. That is of course the historic goal, and that supported by the California Energy Commission with their definition of a “Zero emission vehicle” that ignores all power plant emissions.

    Here is where we need physicists that remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics as applied the heat engines. I have to admit that most electrical engineers have never done much thinking about this issue, if they ever noticed how it affects efficiency in the production of electric power. But physicists should be pre-disposed to understand that for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, there about two kilowatt-hours of heat thrown away. I had kind of assumed it would be better, but then made a serious effort to make an honest calculation that showed it was not (see Of course it varies somewhat. Natural gas plants get about 40% and coal plants get about 30%. This is in 2005. We can expect some improvement, slowly, since the better equipment costs a lot and the old stuff lasts a very long time.

    For reference, the well tuned engines in the PRIUS get over 30% thermal efficiency running on gasoline, or so it has been reported. We can expect some improvement here as well.

    If you put extra batteries in the PRIUS, then you come out with a small efficiency gain if the electricity is from natural gas or a small efficiency loss if the electricity is from coal. And the CO2 is significantly worse if it is from coal.

    And the PRIUS designers went to a lot of trouble to make a car that is efficient in a variety of respects. It looks like GM is not much concerned about that. And why should they be, since they see a huge source of coal energy to tap into.

    Then there is a crowd that would like us to believe that cars should be compared on the basis of energy that flows into the car, be it gasoline or electricity. Then comes an advertising claim of, for example, 136 mpg equivalent from Tesla. Here there is a pretence that electricity is a fuel. But physicists also know that electricity is quite a different kind of energy than fuel that must be burned and converted into mechanical energy. It would be better to think of it as a way of transferring kinetic energy of a spinning shaft in a power plant to kinetic energy of a spinning shaft in a car. Of course, this is better than the practice of ignoring the electric energy source altogether, as is often the case for plug-in hybrid variations, and simply advertising a number based on total miles traveled divided by just the gallons of actual gasoline used.

    So, though the electric car has considerable merit, I argue that we should not allow it to be a subterfuge under which manufacturers can pretend to be “green” or can mislead the public into thinking meaningful action is being taken. I contend these kinds of misleading practices will foul the water as far as what we need the public to be receptive to.

    So the need to make coal more expensive is even more pressing. The only alternative is to seek vehicles that are vastly more efficient than the standard automobile. If GM were to take that approach, they could actually participate in the solution to global warming as well as re-invigorate their manufacturing operations.

    (I have looked at the number of 80m wind towers, with huge blades attached, and although these could be part of the mix, the number needed to make a significant impact, even on status quo loading is huge. Add a new load from the transportation sector, and it seems incomprehensible. While wind could be a real part of the mix, whatever CO2 gains it might give will be overwhelmed by the increased emission of CO2 from the proposed GM shift.)

  16. 366
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Gusbob and other lay skeptics,
    Let’s consider Earth as warmed by sunlight. In the absence of an atmosphere, the Earth’s surface will come into equilibrium with the radiation field of energy flux density j according to the Stefan-Boltzmann Equation–T~j^0.25.
    OK, we know there’s no such thing as a perfect black-body absorber. What do we really mean by a black-body spectrum? It’s just the equilibrium distribution of a gas of photons at our temperature T. But wait–photons don’t interact with eachother, so how do they come into equilibrium? They can only do so by interacting with matter around them. That’s all background.

    Our Earth is radiating a roughly blackbody spectrum at a temperature T. Because Earth’s temperature is in the 200-300 K range, almost all the blackbody radiation is in the infrared. In the absence of an atmosphere, all that radiated energy would escape to space. In fact a good part of it still does–except where it can interact with molecules that have absorption bands in the IR–greenhouse gasses. What these molecules do is absorb the energy Earth radiates in the IR over their own absorption bands–in effect taking a bite out of the blackbody spectrum. So the CO2 molecules absorb IR radiation and then the excited state relaxes either radiatively or collisionally, sharing the energy with surrounding molecules. Think about this: The upwelling IR photons from the warm Earth throw the radiation field out of balance with the cooler atmosphere above, so energy has to flow out of the radiation field into the gas of the atmosphere. The greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere still radiate as a black body IN THE REGION WHERE THEY HAVE ABSORPTION BANDS, so some of the photons might make it a bit further up before being absorbed by more CO2. But here, too, the atmosphere is colder, and so radiates less energy (as the 4th power of the temperature, remember). And so on and so on. In effect, adding more CO2 shifts upward (and colder) the altitude at which a photon radiated by a CO2 molecule can actually escape Earth. So less energy actually escapes Earth.

    And Earth heats up as a result. Eventually the temperature increases sufficiently that Energy Out = Energy In again, and we have a restored equilibrium at a higher temperature.

    The greenhouse effect depends not just on the properties of greenhouse gasses, but also on the adibatic cooling in the troposphere.