The Island of Doubt

Wired magazine’s June cover story would have the entire environmental movement drop everything but one campaign. You don’t need to see the cover to know they’re talking about climate change. Does such single-mindedness make even the slightest bit of sense? Sort of. But not for the reasons the editors provide.

First, it should be noted that Wired‘s attempt to explain why you should “Keep your SUV. Forget Organics. Go nuclear. Screw the Spotted Owl” and instead focus on just one thing: cutting carbon, is accompanied by a counterpart that makes eminently more sense. In his rebuttal, Alex Steffen agrees wholeheartedly that dealing with climate change is absolutely necessary,

But to see everything through the lens of short-term CO2 reductions, letting our obsession with carbon blind us to the bigger picture, is to court catastrophe.

To have any hope of staving off collapse, we need to move forward with measures that address many interrelated problems at once. We’re not going to persuade people in the developing world to go without, but neither can we afford a planet on which everyone lives like an American. Billions more people living in suburbs and driving SUVs to shopping malls is a recipe for planetary suicide. We can’t even afford to continue that way of life ourselves.

We don’t need a War on Carbon. We need a new prosperity that can be shared by all while still respecting a multitude of real ecological limits — not just atmospheric gas concentrations, but topsoil depth, water supplies, toxic chemical concentrations, and the health of ecosystems, including the diversity of life they depend upon.

All that is true, and I’m not really sure why anyone at Wired would even try to argue otherwise. Their case in favor of nuclear power, for example, is woefully short of convincing. It managed to completely ignore the economics of the technology, economics that make nuclear a more expensive way to reduce CO2 emissions that numerous clean alternatives. If you doubt that, ask yourself why no one will build a nuke on this continent without government subsidies and an exemption from liability insurance.

Similarly, the Wired case that we’d be better off using more air conditioning to keep ourselves cool rather then more radiators to keep ourselves warm makes no mention of the far more important contribution of proper insulation to structural thermoregulation. Indeed, it is entirely possible (and affordable) to build a house in New England (though maybe not Edmonton) that requires no dedicated heating system all. Just ask the visionaries at Rocky Mountain Institute, which years ago was heating its entire Colorado mountain complex with the waste energy from a photocopier.

But all of this is just to show that Wired hasn’t done its research. The point I want to make is that, even without the ammunition supplied by bogus arguments against the conventional wisdome of environmentalism, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that climate change is the single most important public policy challenge facing civilization.

Steffen is dead on when he points to the ecological reality that everything is interconnected. As Garrett Hardin said, it is impossible to do just one thing. Reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that trap all that extra solar energy in the atmosphere and you also get rid of the smog that makes the air in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a challenging place for a strenuous hike. Stop drilling for oil in sensitive places and suddenly a lot of species aren’t teetering on the brink of extinction. Stop trying to replace edible crops with truck fuel, and a lot of people aren’t going to need to riot to get access to affordable food.

But even if none of that were true, there would be still be a good reason to devote the lion’s share of our political and economic resources to getting us off the fossil fuel train. Not all our energies, mind you. Just as you can’t ask a candidate for president to ignore every issue but your particular hobby horse, you can’t expect every environmentally minded citizen to embrace the same priority list. What you can do is recognize that whatever do you care about, from biodiversity to toxic waste, you should also care very much about global warming.

The Earth may nor may not be a self-regulating superorganism, as James Lovelock posits, but it is a richly interwoven ecosystem that can be tipped into a new equilibrium that is much more hostile to human life than the one in which we spent most of the last 200,000 years evolving in sync with. And only one issue threatens to push the planet into such a state.

Sure, a catastrophic decline in species numbers would be a bad thing, but most of human culture could make do without the spotted owl, polar bear or snail darter. It would be a sadder world, and some will be missed more than others, of course. For example, it will be hard to get by without bees to pollinate our crops, but it we’d figure something out.

And yes, contaminated water does pose significant risks to many populations of Homo sapiens. But water can be purified, filtered and, if necessary, desalinated. You just need money and an energy source.

But climate change is an entirely different beast. By altering the amount of heat that stays in the biosphere instead of reflects back into space, we are tinkering with the thermostat that makes the planet habitable for humans. It is no exaggeration to raise the specter of changes so dramatic that much of the planet will not be able to support human life without extraordinary measures, measures comparable to those required to live on Mars, or underwater. Such adaptations are theoretically possible, but not feasible for any but a tiny fraction of the world’s 6.5 billion humans.

The end of what Spock would call Class M status for the planet is a worst-case scenario. Lovelock’s nightmare of a few hundred survivors on the north cost of Greenland is probably far too bleak. A more likely outcome is simply a lot more hardship for most of humanity. But no other environmental threat comes with such a dire worst-case —;;;;; for us. This is why climate change is so important and why Wired‘s conclusion is inescapable:

…global warming threatens to overwhelm any progress made on other issues. The planet is already heating up, and the point of no return may be only decades away. So combating greenhouse gases must be our top priority.

I only differ to the extent that Wired would have us ignore everything else, and I see most of the other issues (with the possible exception of genetically modified organisms) as mutually inclusive, rather than exclusive, responses.


  1. #1 Dunc
    June 2, 2008

    For example, it will be hard to get by without bees to pollinate our crops, but it [sic] we’d figure something out.

    Oh, really? Colour me sceptical.

  2. #2 decrepitoldfool
    June 2, 2008

    I thought the article was incredibly shallow. For instance, when they talked about the carbon footprint of the nickel in a Prius’ batteries, they forgot it’s going to be used over and over again. It isn’t like we’re not going to recycle those batteries; they’re too valuable. Every one of their points seemed to have some ridiculous hole in it like that.

  3. #3 Bob H
    June 2, 2008

    “It managed to completely ignore the economics of the technology, economics that make nuclear a more expensive way to reduce CO2 emissions that (SIC) numerous clean alternatives. If you doubt that, ask yourself why no one will build a nuke on this continent without government subsidies and an exemption from liability insurance.”

    The French find it to be economical – about 75% of their electricity comes from nuclear generation. The high cost in this country is largely the result of a strong ‘environmental’ lobby that has used unwarranted fear to make the process of building and commissioning a reactor lengthy and expensive. The radioactive waste problem has been unsovable because of NIMBY and the placing of totally unrealistic requirements on the length of guaranteed storage (10,000 years). The problem with other alternatives is that their energy density is very low compared to nuclear and therefore they present other environmental problems. This country is going to have to have a rational approach to energy production that will need to include many CO2 efficient alternatives including wind, solar and nuclear. (note: biofuels can perhaps be made CO2 efficient – small positive contribution of CO2 compared to oil – but they are not now).

  4. #4 CL
    June 2, 2008

    I disagree. Steffen’s comment is more on the mark here. We simply cannot focus on climate change — as frightening as that prospect is — to the exclusion of all else. More than this ‘one issue’ is threatening humanity on a grand scale. Most of the other environmental dilemmas we face could easily cascade out of our control, with dire consequences. These threats are seemingly under-appreciated by many. For example:

    ** Species loss leads to more than a ‘sadder world’. Lose enough of them and the whole ecosystem collapses. We can (and indeed, have) survived the loss of some species. How many more can we afford to lose? Which one is the linchpin that holds the system together? Do we really want to find out?

    ** Rampant persistent chemical pollution from the overuse of say, pesticides, is another threat. Even at extremely low concentrations, the effects can be deleterious, widespread and not easily predicted. This has been known since the 60s and Rachel Carson. And the situation has only grown worse since them. More chemicals with more possible interactions are present now, with no way of knowing what will happen. Even DDT, long since severely restricted, is making a comeback as the polar ice melts.

    And the list goes on: deforestation, overfishing, topsoil loss, etc. All threaten the tightly intertwined ecosystem we inhabit. There is no guarantee that we will continue to avoid the potential consequences of these actions, as we (apparently) have to date. How much is too much?

    Obviously, we need our ecosystem intact; our civilization does not exist without that encompassing all. The dangers to the biosphere come from many directions. Anthropogenic climate change can exacerbate these problems, or ‘polish us off’ by itself. By all means, let’s fight climate change. But these other environmental issues remain regardless of global warming. None can be safely ignored; we do so at our own peril.

  5. #5 maybenot
    June 2, 2008

    I agree with CL. Climate change is not the only systemic-scale threat, nor is it the only issue already affecting us. I would add to CL’s list water quality, scarcity, and efficiency.

    CL has partially addressed water quality under “persistent chemical pollution”. Similarly devastating ecological effects come about through water scarcity and competing demands. In terms of human needs, many developed nations’ infrastructure is aging and becoming outdated, so water is an issue not only in the undeveloped world, not only in arid regions, not only for aquatic biota, but everywhere.

  6. #6 derek
    June 2, 2008

    Some people say nuclear is a good way to reduce CO2, some people say it’s a bad way to reduce CO2. They’re all wrong. It’s no way to reduce CO2 at all. Even if a country that built nuclear power stations reduced its importation of fossil fuels, all that would happen is that the price would fall, and someone else would buy the barrel that that country didn’t.

    It’s possible for a country to reduce CO2 by shutting down its own mines, wells, or gas fields, but there’s no evidence that any country has ever done so. All the evidence suggests that they went on producing as much fossil energy as they did before the nuclear plants, but they enjoyed the extra watts the nukes provided on top. Mines and wells have been shut, but only because *other* fossil sources were cheaper, never because non-fossil sources were cheaper. And that shutting is temporary, to be reversed when the other fossil source gets more expensive again in the future.

    I heard on the BBC yesterday that the UK government was making special plans to suck the last of the methane out of the North Sea. This is the same government that talks about its Green initiatives to reduce CO2, but there is no CO2 reduction that does not involve saying: “Here is a fossil reservoir. We are leaving it in the ground.”

    (Okay, there is another way, burn it and force the resulting CO2 as liquid back into the ground. Nobody’s doing that.)

    To be fair, this goes for every other non-fossil energy source, not just for nuclear. They’re great devices for energy independence from imported foreign oil, but they’re worth literally nothing as global warming prevention. And it’s amazing the intelligent people who don’t get that. I call it the “Underpants Gnomes” theory of global warming prevention: 1. build nukes 2. ??? 3. oil stays in ground!

  7. #7 natural cynic
    June 2, 2008

    Interesting argument, derek, except that… the coal and natural gas has to stay in the ground along with the oil[especially tar sands]. The two biggest CO2 producers, the US and China, get most of their electrical energy from coal. The market economics will probably drive the prices of carbon sources lower when alternate sources become significant in the first world. This will be a problem because the developing world will then be more able to afford using carbon sources for energy. Then the only way to keep carbon in the ground will be through strong international agreements and taxation policies.

    And there is no way that we can live without using some hydrocarbons as raw materials for industrial processes other than energy production, we just need to deplete these at a much slower rate.

  8. #8 Brewer
    June 2, 2008

    I think a more immediate threat than climate change is the state of the oceans. What’s going on out there is unsustainable in the very short term. We’re very good at managing land in different climates, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, but at sea we’re primitives with advanced technology. We’re mining protein from the oceans like we’ll never see Peak Fish.

  9. #9 Astalavista
    June 3, 2008

    Climate Change and Tropical Cyclones (Yet Again)

    Just as Typhoon Nargis has reminded us of the destructive power of tropical cyclones (with its horrible death toll in Burma�around 100,000 according to the UN), a new paper by Knutson et al in the latest issue of the journal Nature Geosciences purports to project a reduction in Atlantic hurricane activity (principally the ‘frequency’ but also integrated measures of powerfulness).

    The close timing of the Knutson et al and Typhoon Nargis is of course coincidental. But the study has been accorded the unprecedented privilege (that is, for a climate change article published during the past 7 years) of a NOAA press conference. What’s the difference this time? Well, for one thing, the title of the paper: “Simulated reduction in Atlantic hurricane frequency under twenty-first-century warming conditions” (emphasis added).

    The idea that climate change might actually decrease the frequency of tropical cyclones (TCs) is not an entirely new idea. Indeed, similar conclusions have been reached in earlier work using climate model projections (e.g. Yoshimura et al., 2006, J. Meteorol. Soc. Japan; Bengtsson et al., 2006 J. Clim.; Chauvin et al., 2006 Clim. Dyn.). So what are the key developments in this latest work?

    Some background

    Before we tackle that question, it is helpful provide a bit more background on the problem. First, it needs to be recognized that GCMs are too coarse to provide a realistic description of ‘small-scale’ (mesoscale) features such as TCs. The atmospheric components of climate models were never really designed for the study of TCs, but the fact that they can produce features with TC-like character when run at sufficiently high resolutions, gives us increased confidence in the possibility that climate models can be used to analyze climate change impacts on TCs. In order to get a more realistic description of the TCs in coarsely resolved climate models, one needs howeveer to ‘downscale’ the model results.

    Knutson et al project future changes in Atlantic TC behavior by using a regional climate model (RCM) which produces tropical cyclones (though ones that are too weak�see discussion below) to ‘downscale’ climate change impacts. This is accomplished by driving the RCM with boundary conditions provided from the various 21st century model projections described in the IPCC 4th Assessment report (IPCC AR4).

    Contrasting two recent studies

    In certain respects, this new paper is closely related to a paper published last month by Emanuel et al in the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society (‘BAMS’ to those in the know) which received some press of its own (some of it quite distorted). Emanuel et al . also use a downscaling approach applied to more-or-less the very same climate model simulations. And both studies project a decrease in the frequency of Atlantic tropical cyclones (though see caveats below). But here is where the similarities end.

    Emanuel et al use a very different downscaling approach. The use a ‘seeding’ method to randomly generate small vortices analogous to ‘short wave’ tropical disturbances in the real world (the tracks they take are defined in terms of the background atmospheric circulation of the model combined with the so-called ‘self advection’ of the TC itself). They define the probability of development of these vorticies into TCs through a ‘genesis’ model that conditions the favorability of development on various characteristics of the background climate state, and they use a theoretical model to predict TC intensities.

    The differences between the conclusions of the two studies are significant. Using essentially the same IPCC model projections, the two studies come to very different conclusions with regard to key projected quantities, such as the seasonally-integrated powerfulness of TCs or ‘power dissipation index’ (PDI). While the Emanuel et al study predicts a clear increase in PDI, the Knutson et al study does not. So which is right?

    Well, Knutson et al fully acknowledge that their RCM still has too low resolution to produce realistic TCs (the model resolution is about 20 km, while theoretical estimates indicate that a resolution of about 1 km is likely required to simulate the inner core of intense TCs). TCs are very likely being artificially prevented from intensifying in a warmer climate in the Knutson et al study because of this. By contrast, Emanuel et al’s approach does not suffer from such resolution limitations.

    To their credit, Knutson et al openly acknowledge this weakness in their treatment of TC intensity and PDI. What about their conclusions about a projected decrease in Atlantic TC frequency, which are, after all, the central point of the paper? Here we have reservations as well (and if we were the betting kind might even put forward a wager with regard to future trends). In part, these reservations are a result of the very same issues. The limitations of the RCM for example, as the authors note, also lead to incorrect seasonal and geographic distributions of TC genesis.

    Small-scale processes

    In the real world, small-scale phenomena such as convection, clouds, gravity waves, and various sorts of eddies may influence mesoscale systems such as TCs, and these unresolved small-scale phenomena are represented through often somewhat simplistic statistical ‘parameterizations’. This limitation is of course common to essentially all atmospheric models, and in and of itself is no reason to dismiss the conclusions of the study.

    But TCs do also play a role in terms of the larger scales, as they facilitate transport and a redistribution of heat, moisture and momentum (‘upscaling’). This action is simulated more explicitly in RCMs and more implicitly in GCMs by their parameterization schemes, but it is still not really known if these two levels of modelling provide a physically consistent picture of the scale interactions. The RCM solutions, however, are constrained by the results generated by the GCMs and thus depend on how well the parameterization schemes capture this upscaling effect. Yoshimura et al., 2006 have shown that the solutions may be sensitive to the choice parameterization schemes: they found an increase in TC number over the Indian Ocean if the model used the Kuo cumulus parameterization but a decrease if the Arkawa-Schubert cumulus parameterization scheme was used.


    Also significant, perhaps, is the seasonality issue touched on above. The Knutson et al study involves an assumption of a fixed August-October TC season. Yet one important impact of large-scale climate factors which influence Atlantic TC frequency such as ENSO and the NAO (see e.g. one of our own papers on this topic) is their influence on activity during the latter part of the Atlantic hurricane season (one might argue for example that the primary reason for the low TC count during the 2006 season was the early ‘shut-down’ of the season due to increasingly strong El Nino-related wind shear in the autumn as the El Nino set in).

    The role of ENSO

    ENSO itself, and how it’s influences are represented in the analysis, is potentially an even more fundamental issue. It is well known (and openly acknowledged in both the Emanuel et al and Knutson et al studies) that tropical Atlantic TC frequency is heavily influenced by ENSO variability. This is primarily through its influence on vertical wind shear in the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic, which in turn determines how favorable of an environment incipient TCs encounter as they form and intensify. We have discussed this here in detail before.

    Given that ENSO is the dominant source of variability on interannual timescales, it is likely that future changes in ENSO (more specifically, the mean state of the climate and whether it is more “El Nino” or “La Nina” like, i.e. is there a strengthened or weakened ‘Walker Circulation’) could have a profound influence on Atlantic TC frequency. Although the IPCC models project overall a more El Nino like mean state with a weakened Walker circulation, there is far from a consensus among the models. Several credible state-of-the-art coupled models project precisely the opposite. And all of the models used in the IPCC assessment suffer to a varying extent from certain fundamental biases (the inability to produce a realistic ‘ITCZ’ over a large part of the equatorial Pacific ocean�the so called ‘split ITCZ problem’).

    The CMIP3 model projections are essentially evenly split as to whether they project an increase or decrease in the magnitude of individual El Nino and La Nina events. Yet the frequency of large El Ninos and large La Ninas means everything in terms of the likelihood of very active Atlantic tropical storm seasons. If all of this sounds familiar to you, its because we made essentially the same point about a year ago in response to a paper that was more or less making the same argument as Knutson et al, though not quite as fleshed out.


    The fact that the RCM-based downscaling approach can reproduce the observed changes when fed modern reanalysis data is used by Knutson et al as a ‘validation’ of the modeling approach (in a very rough sense of the word�there is in fact a non-trivial 40% discrepancy in the modeled and observed trends in TC frequency). But this does not indicate that the downscaled GCM projections will provide a realistic description of future TCs in combination with a multi-model GCM ensemble mean. It only tells us that the RCM can potentially provide a realistic description of TC behavior provided the correct input.

    Indeed, other purely statistical approaches using large-scale climate predictors of Atlantic TC activity, and which seem to imply different relationships between projected climate change and future Atlantic TC activity (more on this in the future!), also pass similar validation tests with flying colors. So validation against the modern record alone (be it with a dynamical or statistical model) cannot demonstrate the reliability of the future projections. It can only indicate the self-consistency of the analysis.

    Future research

    Scientifically, where do we go from here? How do we achieve greater clarity on these issues? Obviously, there is need for significant increases in resolution of the RCMs, as past studies indicate a significant sensitivity of results to model resolution. The arguably required, aforementioned 1 km resolution may not be practically achievable in the near term, but the community must strive to move in that direction, particularly if projections of future changes in TC strength, intensity, and power dissipation are to be useful.

    Better yet would be to run the coupled ocean-atmosphere models themselves at very high resolution (e.g. 10 km or even finer). This could in principle eliminate many of the thorny issues discussed above, including the potential artifacts of using embedded models with one-way only coupling. But this may be wishful thinking, at least for the foreseeable future.

    Final Thoughts

    Of most fundamental significance to assessing the reliability of these current projections, in our view, is the “junk in/junk out” factor. The detailed projections made using either the RCM approach of Knutson et al or the ‘random seeding’ approach of Emanuel et al, can only be as good as the large-scale scenarios used to drive them. And since key aspects of those large-scale scenarios as far as Atlantic TC activity is concerned (i.e. what really happens to the ENSO mean state and amplitude of variability) are currently not confidently known, neither can we be confident using the model projections to say what will happen to Atlantic TC activity in the future.

    In this respect, we have to consider the entirety of currently available evidence that can inform our assessment of climate change impacts on Atlantic TCs. We know, for example, from the work of Santer et al. that the warming trend in the tropical Atlantic cannot be explained without anthropogenic impacts on the climate. Knutson et al. do not contest this. Furthermore, they do not dispute that the late 20th century increase in Atlantic TC frequency is tied to large-scale SST trends (though they argue that the influence may be non-local rather than local). So we know that (i) the warming is likely in large part anthropogenic, and (ii) that the recent increases in TC frequency are related to that warming. It hardly seems a leap of faith to put two-and-two together and conclude that there is likely a relationship between anthropogenic warming and increased Atlantic TC activity.

    What Knutson et al are asking us to do in essence is to put all that aside (because, they argue�in short�that its not the warming but the pattern of warming that matters here) and instead take on faith the perhaps not-much-more-than 50/50 proposition that the mean changes in ENSO state and variability projected by the IPCC multimodel ensemble (which are a key determinant in the projected future Atlantic TC activity) should be trusted.

    Given these considerations, we would argue that coastal homeowners, insurers, the re-insurance industry, and every other potential stakeholder in this debate would be wise not to take false comfort from the notion (which the headlines resulting from this paper will inevitably feed) that climate change poses no future Atlantic hurricane threat. In fairness to Knutson et al, they do explicitly point out that their projected decrease in frequency is mostly coming from the weak end of the TC intensity spectrum. In principle, therefore, we imagine that they might perhaps even agree with this message themselves.

  10. #10 Andrew Dodds
    June 4, 2008

    Derek -

    Nuclear is a direct baseload Coal replacement in electricity generation, unlike most renewable electricity sources which by definition tend to displace more dispatchable sources (Translation: Natural Gas). France is the typical example – per capita emissions are something like 40% less than Germany, which is heavily invested in the renewables/conservation route. With no discernable effect on emissions thus far. To compare the 3 biggest EU economies in terms of CO2 emissions:

    a) UK. No discernable energy policy, ‘dash for gas’ replaced some coal firec generation, 20% nuclear. CO2 emissions circa 9.5 (Tonnes/person/yesr IIRC).

    b) France. Energy policy – Nukes for electricity, Diesel favoured for transport. CO2 emissions circa 6.

    c) Germany. Energy Policy – phase out Nukes, feed-in tariff, solar plants, energy efficiency, etc. Co2 emissions 10.5. Building more coal fired plants due to projected electicity shortfalls.

    If you think that you can phase out nuclear electric generation and somehow reduce CO2 emissions at the same time then there is a big reality check right there; these are real world figures.

    As far as keeping stuff in the ground goes.. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way that we can arrange things to keep any conventional oil and gas in the ground. Coal, and unconventional oil/gas are a different matter. But the idea that nuclear power should keep oil in the ground is in any case the kind of deliberate misunderstanding that I’m more used to seeing from climate ‘skeptics’. And indeed I suspect it’s the same reasoning.. first decide you don’t like nuclear, then go looking for ‘evidence’.

  11. #11 q
    June 8, 2008

    If you doubt that, ask yourself why no one will build a nuke on this continent without government subsidies and an exemption from liability insurance.

    1) lots of industries are subsidized–don’t you want wind power to be subsidized in some way, either directly or through a carbon tax?
    2) this kind of assumes that liability law is totally fair and handed down by god.