What’s in it for me?

March 12, 2011

you maniacs!

Global temperature

The effects of global warming are visible all over the world, but not all evidently so. For example, the rise in global mean land-ocean surface temperature has been 0.6 degrees Celsius since 1980. But no one experiences the global average temperature directly -it is after all the average over a wide range of temperatures from cold Siberia to the Sahara desert, so in terms of personal experience this fact is meaningless.

One needs to know the context in order to understand what this means. This context is provided by facts such as that this change is roughly twice the global mean temperature change between 1880-1980, that the uncertainty estimate for recent data is 0.1 deg, that temperature reconstructions reveal the current temperature to be unprecedented over at least 1800 years, etc.

Single events

There already have been colossal changes and events in recent years with a clear and obvious impact. There is the incredible drop in arctic ice volume (11,000 cubic km since 1980, with only 4,000 cubic km left on average in sept. 2010, again context is needed). Or the recent flood in Pakistan that affected an area at least the size of England. And other floods, like the flash floods in North-West China (resulting in over a thousand deaths) or the big flood in Australia (which affected 200,000 people). But the link between events like floods and heat waves and global warming is a tricky one, just like the link between smoking and lung cancer in an individual patient: the increase in their occurrence is a solid prediction in a statistical sense, but the story for each individual case is complex. Last year’s heat wave in Russia is a case in point, and may to a large extent be attributable to a `normal’ weather extreme [update Mar 14, 2011: or global warming after all? See here for a compelling argument]. Besides, all this still doesn’t directly touch upon the lives of people here in America -who typically haven’t visited the Arctic recently, let alone twice and know in their hearts that countries like Pakistan don’t really exist. Even the rising global food prices, caused mainly by weather calamities and stirring up mass protests and revolt in the Arab world, such as the revolution in Egypt, have little impact in the U.S. as Americans spend a relatively small fraction of their income on food. Only when global warming and weather start to impact the rental prices here in New York I’m going to be seriously screwed.

Global warming predictions for New York

All this raises a question: what will we experience locally from the global climate change? The simple rule of thumb answer -expect more extreme weather events as the temperature erratically becomes higher and higher- is just that, a rule of thumb. It tells us that the U.S. snowstorms last winter are consistent with and expected from global warming, but the more local you look, to more complicated everything becomes. A very useful resource is the report Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States by the United States Global Change Research Program, available here.

Image from page 109 of "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States"

When it comes to New York (or the North East coast in general), it tells us the following. First, the past:

Since 1970, the annual average temperature in the Northeast has increased by 2°F [=1.1 deg. Celsius], with winter temperatures rising twice this much. Warming has resulted in many other climate-related changes, including:

  • More frequent days with temperatures above 90°F
  • A longer growing season
  • Increased heavy precipitation
  • Less winter precipitation falling as snow and more as rain
  • Reduced snowpack
  • Earlier breakup of winter ice on lakes and rivers
  • Earlier spring snowmelt resulting in earlier peak river flows
  • Rising sea surface temperatures and sea level

Then, the future:

Over the next several decades, temperatures in the Northeast are projected to rise an additional 2.5 to 4°F in winter and 1.5 to 3.5°F in summer. By mid-century and beyond, however, today’s emissions choices would generate starkly different climate futures; the lower the emissions, the smaller the climatic changes and resulting impacts. By late this century, under a higher emissions scenario:

  • Winters in the Northeast are projected to be much shorter with fewer cold days and more precipitation.
  • The length of the winter snow season would be cut in half across northern New York, Vermont, New
    Hampshire, and Maine, and reduced to a week or two in southern parts of the region.
  • Cities that today experience few days above 100°F each summer would average 20 such days per summer, while certain cities, such as Hartford and Philadelphia, would average nearly 30 days over 100°F.
  • Short-term (one- to three-month) droughts are projected to occur as frequently as once each summer in
    the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, and across the New England states.
  • Hot summer conditions would arrive three weeks earlier and last three weeks longer into the fall.
  • Sea level in this region is projected to rise more than the global average,

So, what’s in it for me? (sang the N.Y. Indie band the Walkmen in 2004). The bottom line, if you’re planning on doing business or living in NY, you’d better start paying attention:

The densely populated coasts of the Northeast face substantial increases in the extent and frequency of storm surge, coastal flooding, erosion, property damage, and loss of wetlands. New York state alone has more than $2.3 trillion in insured coastal property. Much of this coastline is exceptionally vulnerable to sea-level rise and related impacts. Some major insurers have withdrawn coverage from thousands of homeowners in coastal areas of the Northeast, including New York City.

Rising sea level is projected to increase the frequency and severity of damaging storm surges and flooding. Under a higher emissions scenario, what is now considered a once-in-a-century coastal flood in New York City is projected to occur at least twice as often by mid-century, and 10 times as often (or once per decade on average) by late this century. With a lower emissions scenario, today’s 100-year flood is projected to occur once every 22 years on average by late this century.


The PVV (Dutch ‘Freedom Party’): Destroying our children’s future

July 30, 2010

General elections were recently held in the Netherlands and the winners are currently negotiating a new government coalition. I didn’t vote, so according to the bumper sticker I don’t get to complain. My poor excuse is that I currently live abroad and tried to sign up five weeks before election day instead of the required six. I will complain anyway.

There is much to complain about. The big winner of the elections is the newly formed PVV (‘Partij Voor de Vrijheid’ or ‘Freedom Party’), although it didn’t surpass the long established right wing VVD (‘Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie’ or ‘People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy’). Now, to put things into perspective, compared to say the Republican Party here in the US, the VVD are nearly a bunch of hippies. But the PVV, they might give the Oklahoman chapter of the GOP a run for their money.

The PVV rose to prominence on a loud and angry anti-muslim platform. (PVV leader Wilders has become an internationally known figure who has collaborated a lot in the past in Dutch parliament with Ayaan Hirshi Ali of ‘Infidel’ fame. He is under heavy surveillance due to numerous death threats.) But forget about the muslims for now, their take on environmental issues will prevail long after Osama and his Jihad have gone the way of the Inquisition. The following comes straight out of their Policy Document .pdf on their website:

“De gesubsidieerde milieubeweging moet steeds nieuwe zaken verzinnen om ons bang te maken om zo hun subsidiestroom in stand te houden. Daarbij worden ze steeds geholpen door hun trawanten bij de staatsomroep. Zo hobbelen we van ‘zure regen’, ‘gat in de ozonlaag’ naar de Brent Spar-affaire. De laatste hype heet global warming.

Het klimaat verandert, natuurlijk, maar dat doet het altijd. De mens kan de temperatuur op aarde niet een paar graden warmer of kouder zetten. Bovendien daalt de mondiale temperatuur al sinds 1998. Ondertussen grijpen socialisten de klimaattheorieën aan om te doen wat ze altijd willen: hogere belastingen, schuldgevoel en veel regels, terwijl van alle CO2-uitstoot slechts 3 tot 4 procent veroorzaakt wordt door de mens. De rest wordt door de natuur (vulkanen, oceanen en moerassen) zelf geproduceerd. We moeten stoppen met paniek over de opwarming van de aarde en stoppen met het geven van geld aan een onbewezen klimaathype. Van Europese klimaatverplichtingen moeten we uiteindelijk af. We zijn tegen ondergrondse CO2-opslag.”

Or, in English:

The subsidized Green movement has to come up with new issues all the time in order to maintain the flow of subsidies. Everytime they are helped in this by their henchmen at the public broadcasting organisation. Thus we bounce from ‘acid rain’ to ‘hole in the ozone layer’ to the Brent Spar affair. The latest hype is called global warming

The climate is changing, of course, but it always does. Man cannot set the earth’s temperature any higher or lower. What’s more, the global temperature has been declining since 1998. Meanwhile socialists employ these climate theories to do what they always want: higher taxes, feelings of guilt and a lot of regulation -while only 3 to 4 percent of all CO2 emission is produced by man. The rest is produced by nature itself (volcano’s, oceans and swamps). We have to stop panicking about the earth warming and we have to stop giving money to an unproven climate hype. Eventually we should get rid of European climate commitments. We are against capturing and storing CO2 underground.

The ‘Freedom’ in Freedom Party entails a lot of freedom indeed. Freedom from scientific inquiry, freedom from reality -but not from anger, apparently. There are so many disingenuous statements and plain out lies in those few sentences that it is sickening. Let’s have yet another look at the text (I know, for Dutch speakers that’s the third already and I sympathize).

Acid rain and the Ozone layer

The subsidized Green movement has to come up with new issues all the time in order to maintain the flow of subsidies…[]..Thus we bounce from ‘acid rain’ to ‘hole in the ozon layer’ to the Brent Spar affair. The latest hype is called global warming

If we manage to successfully avert catastrophe due to global warming, it will undoubtedly suffer the same fate as its cousins acid rain and ozone layer depletion: deal with a problem and the accusation emerges that the problem wasn’t there in the first place! Both acid rain and ozone depletion are still serious problems, of course, although they have been mitigated to a bearable extent largely due to the US Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. This is illustrated by the following plot (from NASA’s Total Ozone Mass Spectrometer website, not hard to find if you can find wikipedia):

A detailed EPA assessment of the policy response is provided by this document. Both acid rain and ozone layer depletion are very real, as the PVV should know -or worse, damn well knows. The remark about the environmental movement is straight out of the skeptic’s playbook.

Changing climate

The climate is changing, of course, but it always does. Man cannot set the earth’s temperature any higher or lower.

The first sentence is true but misleading, for it already implies (‘but’) what is spelled out in the sentence directly after. Which is, to be crude but accurate, bullshit. First of all, the current situation really is unprecedented over the past millennia, as shown below in a plot from this paper from Reviews of Geophysics:

The red line is the instrumental record, the blue line the combination of proxy reconstructions. (If you’re in denial about the famous hockey stick curve from 1998 because you’ve been misled by hacked e-mails quoted of out context, ‘auditing’ sessions on the statistics by complete amateurs etc. etc., here is a pristine hockey stick from 2008 to feast your eyes on, improving incrementally on a result that was robust in the first place.)

Second, not only is the current situation special, it is purely man-made. It’s not the sun. If it were up to the sun, we’d be in a phase of global cooling, for the sun has been extraordinary quiescent of late. Besides, that the sun’s contribution can only account for a fraction of the warming is old news (and by the sun’s contribution to warming I mean of course changes in the solar forcing with respect to its average value. If there were no sun, we’d be frozen solid even if we were up to our nose in pure CO2. The sun is central in all of climate science, but that’s trivial). More information for the layman on what drives climate can be found here. For example: The time scale for full glacial-to-interglacial climate changes is millennia. However, this millennial time scale reflects the time scale of the slow weak climate forcing due to Earth orbital changes, not an inherent climate response time.

Temperature is not declining

What’s more, the global temperature has been declining since 1998

Chutzpah or pathetic, given that we are currently experiencing the hottest year on record? This plot shows satellite (UAH) temperature data for this year:

Here, lower troposphere temperatures for 2010 are shown in green, the average temperature is shown in blue and record temperatures since 1979 are shown in purple (so that last one is supposed to lie high, it represents the hottest moments from many years). The UAH results are confirmed by NOAA. Now a single record doesn’t mean all that much. It’s when you’re getting record numbers of records that you need to start worrying. In the US, for example, we’re getting more and more record highs and less record lows:

But even if we ignore today, the 1998 argument is bogus. The year 1998 was a very hot year (as were all years following 1998), and by taking it as a starting point using surface temperatures based on the HadCRUT data, and by connecting peaks in the noise, you can try to fool people into believing the earth is again cooling. But, looking at a more complete picture by looking at land, atmospheric and ocean heating together, something far scarier emerges:

Actually, even if we stick to land temperatures (and ignore today’s temperatures, etc.), the claim that the earth is cooling since 1998 is unwarranted, for it confuses noise with data. In order to discern a trend from the noise, a sufficiently long time period needs to be considered. If you pick your time period too short, the error bars on your trend become so large that the trend itself becomes meaningless -the error bars still allow for both positive and negative trend (there has been a tremendous trend towards cooling in the US since the sun set a few hours ago today). Take 1999 as the starting point, and the temperature trends for the different satellites are upward:

Nevertheless, the plot above is not all that interesting, for the noise vs data reason. You’ll need a period of approximately 15 years to get a clear and unambiguous trend. Needless to say, any correct trend calculated over an appropriately long time interval that includes 1998 is up.

Mankind’s tiny CO2 contribution

only 3 to 4 percent of all CO2 emission is produced by man. The rest is produced by nature itself (volcano’s, oceans and swamps).

Yes but that is not really the point, is it? Again, a highly misleading representation of what is going on. Think of a bath tub that is full of water. Now at the same time we remove the plug and we open the faucet. If we open the faucet just far enough, the level of water in the bath tub remains constant. If I now start pissing in the tub, the tub will overflow. Something similar is going on with CO2 emission:

There is only enough capacity to absorb 40 percent of CO2 emitted by man, and as a consequence of this, atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 15 to 20 million years. The past few hundred thousand years or so are also shown in the following plot:

The reality-based community

Reporting for The New York Times magazine reporter Ron Suskind famously described a meeting with a Bush aide in 2002:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while your studying that reality -judiciously, as you will- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do

Make no mistake, this mission statement in its sublime lunacy applies to today’s PVV as well. I can only conclude that the PVV are actively and willfully spreading lies about the current state of the global climate and that in their aggressive paranoia they are smearing not only those concerned about the environment, but also climate scientists and science as a whole. These people are about to become part of the Dutch government. They are enabled by a large mob of scared, angry and bloody ignorant voters. This is not the country I left, it is not the country I hope to return to someday.

There is a silver lining to this cloud. It turns out that the scientific bureaus of all other Dutch political parties remain rooted in the reality based community. They have started an initiative for a cleaner future (a ‘burgerinitiatief” by which a group of civilians can formally force an item on the political agenda if they find enough people to support their cause), see here. People with the Dutch nationality can participate, others can show support.

[Update: on Climate Progress there is an essential post on subsidies for renewables vs. fossil fuel subsidies, that fits right in our deconstruction of PVV’s global warming policy…

The subsidized Green movement has to come up with new issues all the time in order to maintain the flow of subsidies.

We’ve already dealt with the nonsense in the first part of this sentence. Let’s take a closer look at who currently benefits most from subsidies, the renewable energy industry or the fossil fuel industry. According to a report on a recent study:

Global subsidies for fossil fuels dwarf support given to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and biofuels, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said.

Governments last year gave $43 billion to $46 billion of support to renewable energy through tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices known as feed-in tariffs and alternative energy credits, the London-based research group said today in a statement. That compares with the $557 billion that the International Energy Agency last month said was spent to subsidize fossil fuels in 2008.

The difference is a factor 12! If the PVV wants to dam the flow of subsidies, they have their work cut out for them. It should prove far more lucrative than rallying against European climate commitments.]

[Update: Added link to NOAA that confirms 2010 shaping up as hottest year on record.]

[Update Aug 5, 2010: Added source for Bush aide quote.]


The sun wakes again

January 31, 2010


The astronomy department of the University of Amsterdam recently moved to a new building which will eventually house all science research of the UvA. One of the best things out of this is that the institute now has two brand new telescopes for educational purposes, one of which for looking at the sun. Last Monday the astronomy professor in charge of the two observation domes finished mounting the solar telescope and I took some pictures with my mobile phone of the image that it projects (it took me a while to get them off the phone and on the computer, I had some troubles with the Bluetooth settings of the phone)

The pictures show the image from the telescope as it is projected on a white screen mounted directly behind the telescope, taken on January 22nd. The white spot is the sun shining directly on the screen, the grey / yellow disc is the projection. The blurry edge around the disc is caused by the atmosphere in Amsterdam. The little black dot and the baby dots on the right in the disc are sunspots – the only visible sunspots on the entire sun! The professor was ecstatic that there was at least one proper sunspot, for he had set up an elaborate astronomy class elsewhere a week before and the students ended up disappointed because there wasn’t a single sunspot to be seen.

The sun has been extraordinarily quiescent the past years, even beyond the normal solar cycle. Which may be boring for astronomers, but from the perspective of climate science has been a relief. Although not much of a relief, for the past decade nevertheless still is the warmest decade on record. This record is likely to be broken by the following decade as the sun becomes active again. To quote p. 37 of my copy of The New Solar system (4th edition) which I bought approximately one solar cycle ago for an introductory astronomy class:

The sun becomes brighter overall as the number of sunspots on its surface increases, and vice versa. This seems counterintuitive, since sunspots are cooler than their surroundings. However, the sunspot cycle is accompanied by variations in magnetic activity, which create an increase in luminous output that exceeds the cooling effects of sunspots. Indeed, the entire spectrum of the Sun’s radiation varies in step with the 11-year cycle of solar magnetic activity.