Friday, March 09, 2007

"The Great Global Warming Swindle".

This is the title of a documentary, broadcast by the U.K. television station, "Channel 4", last night, which is bound to put the cat among the pigeons... or be summarily dismissed and ignored as the insane ramblings of conspiracy theorists. The programme ran for 90 minutes, and if viewed with a sense of detachment rather than instilled dogmatic fury, was extremely interesting. I have previously commented on some of the issues that it raised, in these postings, but from memory here are some of the more salient points.
It is often said that "consensus of scientific opinion" is that global warming is real and is caused by the activities of humans on this planet, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, mainly through burning fossil fuels. Hence, in order to avert a climate catastrophe, all nations must cut their CO2 "greenhouse gas" emissions, even if that involves capturing and storing ("sequestering") CO2 by new technology before it can be released from power stations. Catching CO2 from cars etc. would be a far more difficult strategy. In addition to fears over what might happen should that CO2 not remain safely locked-away but be released at some later moment from an undersea pool, old gas-well or former saline aquifer, there is the sheer energy cost of carbon sequestration which some figures indicate would consume up to 50% of the energy produced by a typical power station, meaning that we would need to build an extra power station for each new one, just to cope with the CO2 emissions from it.
There is also a huge demand, especially in the U.S. to produce "corn ethanol" on a massive scale and President Bush wants 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels to be provided annually by 2017, much of this being bioethanol. It is debatable whether it might prove more advantageous to simply buy the stuff from Brazil where there is already a thriving ethanol industry, based on sugar cane which grows well in the Brazilian climate. Biodiesel and biohydrogen are also sometimes cited as desirable commodities, although providing them on the required scale is even less practical than bioethanol, which would in any case consume the majority of arable land in the UK and the US, and would severely restrict food production.
The programme pointed out that the issue of "cutting CO2 emissions" fits well with the agenda of anti-capitalism and anti-globalisation groups, since industrialisation depends totally on oil, and of course burning oil produces CO2. We have all heard of the Kyoto protocol, which only the US refused to sign-up to on the grounds that it would "destroy the national economy" - so said George Bush. It was in this same speech, as I recall, that he said there would be "no tit-for-tat with Tony Blair" (in an unforgettable accent) over standing shoulder to shoulder with him on the vexed issue of invading Iraq. Peak oil being a reality, more military conflict in the Middle East seems quite likely, and this will in any event hit the world's industries and the development of countries like China and India; cuts in CO2 then appear inevitable, especially from the transportation sector, as the culpable "oil" runs out and there is less of it to burn, irrespective of political agendas.
Now, there is a man called Piers Corbyn, who is not popular with the "consensus" of scientists. It is debatable that real science could ever be reduced to a consensus of opinion - it is either science or not, and a matter of analysing facts, surely, according to that tried and trusted "scientific method". However, there is so much research funding available (up by a factor of 30 from 10 years ago in the US) to "predict" climate change - by algorithms based on the effect of increasing CO2 levels, that an overnight re-emphasis of global warming in terms other than this would lose a lot of people their funding and probably many jobs too. However, these predictions (not facts) are taken with sufficient seriousness that the UK government's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King, has said famously that "climate change is a greater threat to mankind than terrorism", and maybe he is right. It is just that not everybody believes in the man/CO2 inexorable heating theory to explain it. Here we come back to Piers Corbyn. He analyses and predicts weather in terms of the activity of the Sun. It is his opinion that solar activity influences climate and his record of weather prediction is sufficiently good that bookmakers will no longer accept his bets. There is a new book out too (mentioned in a previous posting) that provides "evidence" for a 1500 year cycle, caused by changes in the output of the Sun, and that the Earth is currently in the warming phase of this, to be followed by an inevitable cooling curve.
I had heard this one before, but it was stressed in the Channel 4 programme - namely that on closer examination of the geological record, the increase in CO2 that occurs every 100,000 years or so, actually follows a temperature rise (with a "lag" of about 800 years), rather than preceding it, in contradistinction to what would be expected on the basis of the greenhouse gas-induced warming theory. In the programme it was suggested that the temperature of the oceans (in which are dissolved enormous quantities of CO2, around 60 times as much as is in the atmosphere) is increased by (say) an increase in the level of solar radiation falling onto the planet, and then this causes some of the CO2 to be released over an appreciable time, as such huge volumes of water are highly efficient thermal buffers and take a long time to warm-up. There seems little doubt, however, that the current "excess" atmospheric CO2 correlates closely with the amount of fossil fuel burned since 1950, and this is overwhelming the capacity of natural planetary sinks to absorb it. Whether this is the "cause" of global warming in its entirety is another matter.
If we do indeed have only a "consensus" of opinion rather than absolute facts about the nature of the cause of climate change then what should we do about it? It is difficult to answer that since even the final outcome of global warming is not clear. Most models predict that the Earth will warm over the coming decades (although there is no clear "consensus" of by how much), most catastrophically in a "run-away greenhouse effect" scenario. If that is true, and there is also an additional warming influence not addressed in them, then my fear is that the full effect of the undoubtedly increasing CO2 content of the atmosphere may be yet to kick-in, and the world could get very hot indeed. One alternative theory is that if enough of the Arctic ice melts, the dilution of the saline waters drawn from the Equatorial regions will prevent them from sinking, as they normally do, thus shutting-off (or slowing down) the Atlantic Conveyor which keeps northern Europe warm. Given that the UK is on the same latitude as say Hamilton, Ontario, our climate could become very cold indeed and the next ice-age might be triggered.
A substantial proportion of choice in these matters is of course removed from our hands by the inevitable depletion of the world oil resource, and so our global CO2 emissions will be cut inevitably whether we decide that course for ourselves or not. Migration of populations in also an inevitable outcome, but in which direction? Do Europeans begin to move toward warmer climes, maybe as far south as Africa, to escape the relentless fingers of an ice age, or do African and southern European peoples begin to move north to seek refuge from inexorable searing heat and arable lands that are turned to desert? In both cases, resources of freshwater will become compromised, since either as locked-up in new ice or diverted from the rainfall of traditional lands, there must be less liquid water available. Already regions of Spain have not seen rain for periods of years and this has impacted on growing crops there. The one common outcome would seem to be a re-localisation of societies, on the basis of less resource-intensive means for living, and being careful where these new roots are to be planted, in a compromise of optimising both climate and resources in the oil-poor era that beckons sharply to us.

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