Mixed messages on energy and climate issues

The Easter break provided a good opportunity to catch up on some recent climate stories, but the current messages delivered by the various media and other outlets vary enormously with a bewildering array of assertions and counter claims.

The continued arguments about the “pause” or otherwise in global warming continue, most notably in the Mail Online / Mail on Sunday, where columnist David Rose argues that there is “hard proof” that incorrect global warming forecasts are “costing us billions”. But his arguments have a number of problems.

The Mail chose to quote a number of climate scientists, one of whom almost immediately refuted the way in which the article had used his quote. Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford and Head of the Climate Dynamics Group in the University’s Department of Physics is reported to have said;

“. . . . that until recently he believed the world might be on course for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than five degrees this century. But he now says: ‘The odds have come down,’ – adding that warming is likely to be significantly lower. Prof Allen says higher estimates are now ‘looking iffy’.”

But in an article in The Guardian, Allen made it clear that his point was very different to that expressed;

But I also explained that doubling pre-industrial carbon dioxide concentrations, which we are almost certain to do now, was just the beginning. Increasing use of fossil carbon at the current rate would drive atmospheric concentrations towards four times pre-industrial figures by 2100. So even if the “climate sensitivity” is as low as 2C, as some lines of evidence now suggest, we would still be looking at 4C plus by the early 22nd century.

The Mail article uses a simple surface temperature chart to argue that warming estimates have been a “spectacular miscalculation”, even though the heavy black line shown in the chart (see below) has not actually breached the 95% confidence limits, rather there is just the assertion that it “is about to crash out”.




Further to this, the Mail has not done any real analysis of this trend, such as presented in December 2011 by Foster and Rahmstorf (Global temperature evolution 1979–2010, Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf, Environmental Research Letters 6 (2011) 044022 (8pp)). In their paper they correct for the effect of volcanoes, solar variability and ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) in all the main global temperature data sets and present the chart below – which shows a steady and continuing issue with the global heat balance and a consequent rising temperature trend.



Other studies show similar findings, such as the Berkley Earth Surface Temperature Project. The Economist also weighed in and discussed the differences between climate modeling approaches and ventured some thoughts on why these models are giving quite different results at the moment.

One of the issues that the Mail article addressed was the money being spent in the UK on renewable energy and its flow through to electricity and fuel bills. There is no doubt that this is an issue at the moment in the UK, but the reasons for it are multiple and complex. Attempting to create a simple link between the need for offshore wind subsidies and recent temperature trends trivializes both the climate issue and the various discussions around energy security, competitiveness and energy costs.

The renewable energy issue leads onto another story published just before Easter – a posting by Paul Gilding in Australia which made the case that the fossil fuel industry is on the verge of massive disruption, leading to its inevitable extinction in just a few decades.

There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory. If we read the current context correctly, and if the movement can adjust its strategy to capture the opportunity presented, it could usher in the fastest and most dramatic economic transformation in history. This would include the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen.

Of course it’s difficult for me to pass credible comment on this, given my affiliation to that industry, but the facts simply don’t stack up. While there is no doubt that renewable energy use is accelerating rapidly, so too is the use of fossil fuels and of course our overall use of energy. Both renewable energy and fossil energy will need to grow, simply to make energy ends meet. In the recently released Shell New Lens Scenarios, the Oceans scenario sees an extraordinary increase in solar energy uptake, which by 2030 is seriously outpacing the recent and current (1990-2020) surge in coal use. But even with this growth rate, it is not until about 2030 that fossil use drops below 80% of primary energy use and not until 2060 that overall fossil use actually starts to decline in absolute terms.

Finally, Bjorn Lomborg resurfaces in The Times with his article “The joy of global warming” (subscription required to read this). He argues again as he has for many years that the issue is something for later rather than for now (“ . . . global warming is a problem for the future but a benefit now . . . .”), but does make the cogent point that the emissions issue will not resolve itself until “green” energy comprehensively outcompetes fossil energy. However, he seems to miss the point that climate is a “stock problem” due to the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, so simply waiting until later may not be the right course of action at all (again, another lesson from the recent Shell scenarios).

So, as already noted, a bewildering array of messages. It is little wonder that policy makers, the public, academia and NGOs are collectively at a loss as to how to take the climate issue forward. Most readers are probably well versed on my view of what needs to be done, but if not, it’s here.