Archive for February, 2010

No ice

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It isn’t often that you actually see something that surprises you and makes you really think about what is happening to the climate. I am in Washington, D.C. at the moment and flew here yesterday. We passed over Newfoundland and the southern part of the Gulf of St Lawrence on the way into Washington. I had a right hand side window seat and the all the way from Newfoundland to the Canadian mainland there was blue sky and crystal clear visibility for miles.

As we passed over Newfoundland I was thinking that it didn’t   appear quite as white as normal, with very visible features showing. I have passed over this region many times in the winter and on the few cloudless days that there are I can only ever recall it being just a total whiteout. On the south western coast of Newfoundland (St George’s Bay) there are mountains at the shore and these had a very clear snowline at quite a high level, rather than my expectation that it would be white to the coast.

But the real surprise was passing over the Gulf of St Lawrence – there was no pack ice on the water at all as far into the distance as I could see. It was just blue to the horizon. I know that the St Lawrence Seaway ices up in winter and of course this winter, al least in the United States, will be remembered for its severity, but it certainly didn’t appear so severe in this part of North America.

Not being sure if my observation is unusual or not, I have looked on the web and found a NASA link which shows the same area in April 2008. This is later in the year and it seems to show quite a bit of ice. (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=8661).

I won’t jump to any conclusions here, but I did want to share my own observation.

Meanwhile, it was snowing again in Houston!!!

Challenging Climate Science

In recent weeks as the IPCC has revealed a number of misquotes in their 4th Assessment Report and with the UEA e-mail issue rumbling on, climate science has come under intense scrutiny. A couple of weeks back I commented on the way in which we all seem to love technology, but at the same time society is becoming increasingly uneasy with science.

As has been the case over the many years of this issue, the media is also playing a role. In the past we have often seen reports of apocalypse and whilst many of these reports had a basis in science, they sometimes reported one extreme end of the spectrum of potential outcomes. Today, it is climate science that is undergoing a similar treatment. Late last year the Daily Express compiled its “100 Reasons Why Global Warming Is Natural” (http://www.dailyexpress.co.uk/posts/view/146138), first published during Copenhagen but now rolled out again in the context of the start of the government enquiry into the University of East Anglia e-mail break-in. Like the stories of apocalypse, it could make the reader think that the scientific basis for anthropogenic warming had utterly collapsed. But on closer scrutiny the 100 reasons don’t present a reasoned arguement to believe that everything has suddenly changed.

Let me illustrate: In the region of half of the statements, whether true or not, have no bearing on the relationship between increasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and recorded warming over the last 100 years (e.g. India plans to reduce the ratio of emissions to production by 20-25% compared to 2005, but all government officials insist that since India has to grow for its development and poverty alleviation, it has to emit, because the economy is driven by carbon). Then there are numerous statements which are just that, statements, with apparently no quoted evidence or substantiation. For example;

Statement 2 argues that man-made carbon dioxide emissions throughout human history constitute less than 0.00022 percent of the total naturally emitted from the mantle of the earth during geological history. This may well be the case, but has no bearing on the fact that we have added nearly 2 trillion tonnes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in just 200 years and that this has been sufficient to see a marked shift in the CO2 levels in the atmosphere today.

Statement 7 argues that the 0.7C increase in the average global temperature over the last hundred years is entirely consistent with well-established, long-term, natural climate trends. The problem here is that this has been shown not to be the case. Page 11 of the Summary for Policymakers (Fourth Assessment Report) of the report of Working Group 1 of the IPCC shows that both natural and anthropogenic forcings need to be applied to explain the changes in temperature over the 20th century. No other approach consistently matches the observed data.

Statement 15 argues that it is absurd to accuse a single trace gas of radically changing the climate. But the IPCC makes it abundantly clear that climate change is the result of many anthropogenic forcings, including CO2, other trace gases, aerosols and changes in cloud cover (e.g. contrails from aircraft). However, there is also clear evidence that CO2 is a very important forcing component in the atmosphere.

Whilst every media outlet and every person is more than entitled to express an opinion, and I welcome the debate, we urgently need to raise the level of the debate and understanding of climate science. There is little doubt that much is still to be learned about this great physics experiment we are undertaking in our atmosphere by changing its composition. Perhaps warming will proceed dramatically over the next few decades, but there is a chance other factors might just supress everything for a while and leave us in a state of complacency. Either way, we can’t actually be certain today, but we can go some way to quantify the risks that we are running. This is where much of today’s scientific study is focussed. Shell sponsors MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change which undertakes such risk analysis.

More to the point, the complication with this issue is that we have to act before we can be absolutely sure of the outcome. If we don’t act and it transpires that the outcome is not something the world likes, there is then no going back. This means that society needs to both understand the science and come to terms with the risks that it shows we are collectively running.

Following the money

Not surprisingly, money is at the heart of the political debate now underway on climate policy, or at least its distribution within the economy. Whilst cap-and-trade is being portrayed as a taxation policy by some, other policy proposals are being presented as being without cost to families and households – both of course aim to reduce emissions. But there are no free lunches here and whichever way the issue is presented, there are costs and benefits involved.

For starters, underpinning any approach to emissions reduction is the emissions abatement curve, which plots the cost of emissions reduction against the scale of the reduction opportunity. A perfect approach to reducing emissions starts on the left hand side of the curve and progresses to the right, picking up all potential reductions before moving on. This results in the lowest overall cost to the economy for the required reduction. Cap-and-trade probably comes closest to this. At a given carbon price, the tradability of allowances means that, at least to the extent that market efficiency dictates, the next best emissions reduction project is executed somewhere in the economy. This drives a lowest cost outcome which also minimises the impact on the consumer.

But the way in which the consumer sees the impact may differ for different approaches.

Under cap-and-trade, with full auctioning of allowances, the immediate effect is that industry will attempt to pass on the cost of allowances and therefore the overall cost of goods and services rises throughout the economy. The extent of the rise for a particular product depends on the carbon footprint of its supply chain or the footprint of the marginal supplier. As a result, consumers also start to change their purchasing choices and the more carbon intense products lose market share or become less attractive to produce – either way they are forced out of the market. In return, the money collected by the government through the auctioning of the allowances is returned to the consumer through lower costs elsewhere, either directly (i.e. a legislated rebate), or indirectly as the economy adjusts to the overall change in money flow and the cost of some other service falls over time (e.g. state taxes).

Policies other than cap-and-trade also change the money flow, but their impact on the consumer may be different.

For example, government may choose to directly incentivise certain actions within the economy. Initially, money flows from government to the enterprise implementing the emission reduction and the consumer may not be impacted at all. But over time this money must be found through the fiscal process. This may result in additional taxation in some other part of the economy or a new charge on businesses or consumers. If the charge falls on business then this will ultimately be passed through to the consumer in the form of higher prices.

A second example could involve the imposition of some kind of standard or regulation. Although in some cases this is by the far the quickest and most direct method of achieveing a result, it nevertheless has a cost impact on the consumer. Eventually the affected businesses may raise prices to pay for the work required to meet the standard.

These types (i.e. not cap-and-trade)  of policy approaches also tend to pick arbitrary points on the abatement curve and require their implementation, irrespective of whether there are lower cost reduction opportunities available in the economy. This means that the overall cost to the economy for a given level of reduction is increased, which in the end may mean a greater burden on the consumer. Whilst this impact may be very indirect and slow to materialise, it will neverthless be there.

No matter what the construction looks like at the outset, any net costs to reduce emissions must be borne by the economy. Eventually this will fall on the consumers through mechanisms such as increased prices or changes in taxation. But benefits can also accrue. New jobs may be created as a result of the efforts and other costs reduced, such as for energy. But the overall cost or benefit will be largely dictated by the abatement curve and the efficiency with which the policy instrument tackles it.

With the arrival of the Apple iPad last week, it was clear that the world is in the middle of a technology boom and it was even clearer that we all love it. Whilst some couldn’t help comment on certain missing features (the web cam, the USB connector and so on), nobody was condemning the entire idea of portable communication devices to the dustbin – quite the contrary, I can almost guarantee that there will be a line around the block on the day Apple release this latest product for sale. We just love technology.

Technology such as the iPad is built on the back of fundamental scientific research in many fields, from theoretical physics to materials science – even particle mechanics and other esoteric sciences creep into the picture. Years of research in universities, private laboratories and government agencies, leading to literally thousands of scientific papers have led the way to the products that we speculate about, eagerly await announcements of and then buy in the million.

But somewhere along the line we seem to have lost our appetite for science, in fact some even look on it with disdain. In developed countries, far less students today engage in science or science based subjects in schools and universities than twenty or thirty years ago. Yet those same people crave the products that a science based education system can ultimately deliver.

On a newscast I was watching last week an excited correspondent was telling us about the iPad. Not two minutes later the same person was salivating at the prospect of “the whole global warming story collapsing like a house of cards because of the bogus science”. But the approach to this science is no different to that behind the iPad, the scientists no less diligent, the papers they produce no less reviewed, yet because we either don’t want to know about or can’t accept the findings we choose to attack the science and the scientists – not with any intellectual rigour or scientific discipline, but with slander and sometimes even abuse. I doubt the correspondent had even the remotest idea as to the years of research in atmospheric chemistry that have led to the concern about the rising levels of carbon dioxide or the detailed measurements done in laboratories for the past century on the behaviour of carbon dioxide and infra red radiation. But he loved the iPad!!

Even if we can get past the atmospheric chemistry that supports the thinking on climate change, we then run into difficulty with the solution set. Many people don’t like nuclear, yet have little or even no knowledge of the supporting science. Geological sequestration of carbon dioxide is struggling to gain public acceptance, despite the many studies done and even field tests that support its inherent safety. We simply choose not to believe that it can be right.

But we still love the iPad!