THEGREENGROK

A Skeptics’ Compromise Climate ‘Solution’


by Bill Chameides | December 15th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 23 comments

Climate skeptic Ross McKitrick has proposed a new scheme to address climate change. Reasonable or a (McKi)trick?

At Copenhagen things are going hot and cold, with negotiators from Africa and other developing nations walking out in protest (and walking back in hours later) while the United States and China exchange barbs on who is holding up progress toward an agreement.

Meanwhile, new ideas on how to deal with climate change are being floated, some from surprising corners.

One such proposal appears in John Tierney’s “Findings” column in the Science section of today’s New York Times. Tierney describes a climate-change proposal from Ross McKitrick an economist from the University of Guelph in Ontario and an outspoken climate skeptic who made his climate rep by attacking Michael Mann’s now infamous hockey-stick representation of the past millennium’s temperature record. Even more surprising is the apparent reasonableness of his proposal. At least at first blush.

Letting Mother Earth Dictate the Policy

McKitrick’s idea is to let the climate itself set caps or taxes on global carbon emissions rather than legislators or international negotiators.

How? Simple, just tie the cap or tax to the global temperature increase.

If global temperatures continue to rise, as most climate scientists believe they will, lower the cap or raise the tax at some pre-agreed rate. If, on the other hand, temperatures do not rise, do nothing. And if they fall, loosen the cap or lower the tax.

“Either way,” according to McKitrick, “we get a sensible outcome.”

The Mother of All Solutions? Hardly.

My gosh, it is sensible, isn’t it? Actually, not so much. There are some problems. McKitrick’s approach assumes that the climate reacts to greenhouse gases in a simple, linear, and reversible manner. It doesn’t.

  1. McKitrick’s “let-the-climate-call-the shots” approach assumes that the temperature change at any point in time reflects the effects of the greenhouse gas emissions at that point in time.

    That’s just not the case. The climate system has a considerable amount of inertia. For example, the full impacts of today’s carbon dioxide emissions won’t be felt for another 20 or 30 years.

    Waiting to see a large temperature change before getting serious about lowering greenhouse gas emissions would be like closing the barn door after the climate horse has escaped.

  2. McKitrick’s proposal assumes that the climate will change in a slow, orderly manner — a little more emissions, a little higher temperature.

    But while that may be the case, it’s also quite possible (some scientists say quite likely) that the climate will change in sudden, abrupt shifts as it reaches various tipping points.

    A slow ratcheting down of emissions tied to “wait and see” temperature shifts could allow us to blow right by one or two of those tipping points before global temperature changes told us to act.

  3. Finally, the proposal falls into the trap of thinking of global warming as a process that only involves a temperature change.

    In fact, it’s about a lot more, potentially a complete disruption of the climate — melting glaciers and ice sheets, droughts, ocean acidification.

    Tying emission caps or taxes to global temperatures ignores the fact that the signal for action may come from non-temperature disruptions.

Risky Business

Deciding whether or not to act on climate change is about assessing the risk and acting appropriately.

We can limit the risk by starting now to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Much of what we need to do today would involve no-regrets actions like becoming more efficient and investing in new, low-carbon technologies. (This USA Today cartoon makes a good case.)

Or we can choose to do nothing and wait and see what happens (and hope for the best). If, as a society, we decide to do the latter — so be it. But let’s be honest about it and not cloak our decision to ignore the warnings of climate scientists in the guise of some feel-good, wait-and-see climate-mitigation pretender.

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23 Comments

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  1. AMac
    Dec 16, 2009

    > …in the guise of some feel-good, wait-and-see climate-mitigation pretender. At first blush, that reads more like ad hominem than like a comment on climate policy.

    • Bill Chameides
      Dec 16, 2009

      AMac: The definition of ad hominem: “1. appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason. 2. attacking an opponent’s character rather than answering his argument.” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ad+hominem The pretender in this case is the climate policy. It is not an ad hominem attack.

      • AMac
        Dec 16, 2009

        Applying the label “feel-good, wait-and-see climate-mitigation pretender” to McKitrick’s policy proposal–rather than to McKitrick himself–wouldn’t be ad hominem. It would be an instance of awkward grammar, so thank you for the clarification. As a newcomer to climate issues, I have been repeatedly impressed by the general poverty of argumentation, and by the quickness of many parties to impute the worst of motives to their policy opponents. Since the science is not settled, it is no great surprise that policies that depend on that science are particularly contentious. But there seems to be a lot of room for improvement.

        • Jim
          Dec 17, 2009

          AMac, The science is pretty much settled. The naysayers would have you believe otherwise, but as of yet, there has been no other explanation for global warming other than human activity. The American Meteorological Society, NOAA, NASA, the IPCC, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, the National Research Council, American Association for the Advancement of Science and many other science organizations agree that global warming is occurring and is most likely caused by human activity. Could so many scientists be wrong? Maybe, but for me, I choose to put my money on the scientists.

          • AMac
            Dec 18, 2009

            Prior to two months ago, I would have agreed with your excerpt:encoded in its entirety. I hadn’t looked into AGW, though with a (somewhat antique) undergrad degree in Earth Sciences, I had some background context. Today, I would agree with much of what you wrote. The evidence that the planet has warmed considerably over the past century is pretty compelling, CO2 levels have risen substantially, and the physics behind greenhouse-gas theory is well-established. There is certainly a mainstream consensus as far as the opinions of scientists on the general extent of warming, its context in light of Holocene climate history, its causation via CO2-mediated forcing, and–looking forward–the strong predictive power of computer models to forecast future climate changes. To my dismay, as regards AGW, I have come to believe that “the opinions of scientists” does not map to “scientific opinion.” Much less to “the science is pretty much settled.” “Scientific opinion” refers to falsifiable conclusions that have been arrived at via proper application of the scientific method, as described by Popper and other philosophers of science. I won’t offer a conclusion as to AGW — although my layperson’s *opinion* is that it is probably a correct general explanation for most of the last 100 years’ rise in temperature. I can, however, assert that parts of “climate science” as practiced by members of the climatology community do not achieve the minimum standards of practice that are generally accepted in most or all other areas of physical science. — continues —

          • AMac
            Dec 18, 2009

            — continued (Part 2 of 2) — My assertion is not “AGW is phony;” it’s much more limited: “Reconstruction of the climate of the past 2,000 years is important to putting recent temperature rises into context. One of the most prominent papers on this subject (Mann et al, PNAS, 2008) was poorly performed, and contains crippling flaws discernable by the educated lay person. Yet its authors have denied its most glaring errors, and failed to correct the paper or retract it. Some prominent scientists in relevant fields have come out in support of the paper’s methods (e.g. Gavin Schmidt, William Connolley), while other scientists have stayed silent (e.g. Mia Tiljander). That Mann et al (2008) passed editorial and peer review at a high-impact journal strongly suggests that these quality-control procedures did not perform their functions. The ongoing acceptance of this status quo by the scientific community strongly suggests that informal scientific QC procedures are also failing. If such failures are commonplace, then the consensus conclusions regarding climate and AGW cannot be taken to be properly ‘scientific’ in form.” Supporters of the notion that “the science is pretty much settled” should be able to refute the strong claims I have made, thus falsifying my hypothesis. For specifics, Google “Tiljander Mann” (without the quotes).

            • Jim
              Dec 22, 2009

              Where do you get “scientific opinion” from? Global warming is not based on “scientific opinion” it’s based on scientific fact such as the laws of thermodynamics and such. The consensus of global warming amongst scientists comes from the research of thousands of scientists over a time span of 40 years. The vast majority of the scientists that have actively researched and published on some aspect of global warming agree that global warming is occurring and that it is most likely caused by human activity. It is not an opinion, but based in fact. As to your second part, why the heck are you asking me??? I am not a scientist and don’t have the qualifications to support or refute the paper or what you say. The fact that I can’t has nothing to do with the science. I think your asserstion that the paper has crippling flaws is unlikely. You produce nothing to back up your claim. You only point to one paper, yet there have been hundreds or thousands of papers published on global warming supporting the theory.

            • AMac
              Dec 22, 2009

              The above 2-part comment was submitted on Dec. 18, 2009 at 11:49 AM, not at Dec. 21, 2009 at 10:45 PM, as timestamped. Such heavy-handed moderation of on-topic and thoughtful dissenting remarks renders these Comments useless, as a venue for genuine dialog. Bug or feature? As far as the “Science” part of “Environmental Science”, I recommend that GreenGrok evaluate its policies in light of Chapter 23 of Karl Popper’s 1945 book “”The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume II — The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel. Marx, and the Aftermath.” The text is online. The relevant six paragraphs begin, “Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection.” Cross-posted to “An Inconvenient Comment.”

          • Ken Towe
            Dec 18, 2009

            JIM (and the IPCC) says: “global warming…is most likely caused by human activity.” What do YOU feel is the most persuasive evidence that it is “most likely” caused by human activity? The IPCC (p. 40) says this: “Several modelling studies have linked some specific responses in physical and biological systems to anthropogenic warming, but only a few such studies have been performed.” Isn’t all this really based on some numbers (many being questioned because of “climategate”) put into supercomputer models and tweaked with ill-defined terms called homogeneity adjustments and elimination of outliers, plus disputed climate sensitivity parameters, to produce the “most likely” result? Consensus among scientists and/or it’s just “basic physics” is not always correct… isn’t that right Lord Kelvin? From NASA: “Lord Kelvin, the President of the Royal Society of England made a forceful declaration. ‘Heavier than air flying machines are impossible,’ said this very powerful man of science….Rumor has it Lord Kelvin was slightly in error.” In 1862 Lord Kelvin published calculations that fixed the age of Earth at between 20 million and 400 million years. Rumor has it Lord Kelvin was again slightly in error. In 2009 Jim (and others) assert…the science [connecting man-made CO2 with recent temperature change] is pretty much settled. Rumor has it that this is pretty much not true. There are serious and well-qualifed scientists (often pejoratively called skeptics) who have legitimate disagreement. Would you have made the same assertion in the early 70s… when it was “most likely” that an ice-age was upon us “within the next hundred years” (NAS), was being “dangerously underestimated”(Stephen Schneider), and skeptics were also dismissed… “only a fool would gamble it [cooling] will not continue”?

            • Jim
              Dec 22, 2009

              Would you please get off the 70’s Ice Age myth. No such assertion exists. There was one paper published that mentioned something about cooling temps or some such that was latched on to by the media and hyped. The vast majority of the papers published pointed towards global warming. Just look at the temperature records, they have moved up since the 70’s. Your other assertions about past statements were single people and is anecdotal. With global warming we are talking about thousands of scientists and thousands of publications over 40 years that have supported global warming. Yes, sometimes science is wrong, and is typically self correcting. But looking at the research track record to date, it is simply difficult to believe that anything but global warming is taking place.

              • Ken Towe
                Dec 25, 2009

                Jim is a skeptic, he denies the cooling, says it was hype based on one paper somewhere. Let’s take a look at the evidence available in the early 70s. The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC interviewed the top climate scientists and published an in-depth article (1976) “What’s Happening to Our Climate?”. A chart showing the history of northern hemisphere temperatures from 1880-1976 is displayed across pp. 614-615 and is projected to 2000…a question for the future: Warmer? Cooler?…than 15°C (59°F), the 1976 “today’s temperature” northern hemisphere average. [http://revolution2.us/content/docs/global_cooling/614-615.html] An almost identical curve appears in Fig. 6A of the 1975 NAS Report. The horizontal line (zero anomaly, Fig. 6A) is at the 15°C (59°F) level. A warming trend is seen on both, beginning in the early 20’s. The temperature peaked ~1938 and is shown at 15.6°C, a +0.6° anomaly re. the 1976 level. Then it got steadily cooler through the 40s and 50s and by ~1965 it had dropped to 14.8°C. A cooling trend is quite evident. In 1976 Dr. Reid Bryson (prominent climatologist) said: “We find that, since 1945, the Northern Hemisphere has cooled one half of one degree Celsius.” Faced with all this evident cooling, by 1976 there had been 25 “climate modification” proposals presented to save the planet! Today, in 2009, we can replace the Warmer?-Cooler? projected 2000 NH temperatures with the actual result: 14.6°C (NASA-GISS, NH). In other words, the NH temperature in 2000 was 0.4°C lower than it was in either 1976 or 100 years earlier in 1900. Still, skeptics abound. A hyped “inconvenient truth”, or have some 1970s original data been “adjusted”?

                • Bill Chameides
                  Dec 29, 2009

                  Ken, In the 1970s, the scientific community was actually split on whether we were headed for global cooling, warming, or more of the same. See my post here: http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/thegreengrok/aerosolsandcooling In 1970 we were really unsure where the climate was headed. We’ve learned a lot since then. That’s why we do research. Research would be pretty pointless if one would cite the fact that scientists did not understand something before they did the research as proof that they do not understand it after the research.”

            • Bill Chameides
              Dec 28, 2009

              Ken, You will forgive me if I forego the discussion on Lord Kelvin and stick with the issue at hand. Your question has been asked and answered, but one more time into the breach. The evidence linking human activities and global warming is based on direct measurements of the climate system – not, repeat not models. These measurements include observations that the sun’s output has not increased in the last 3 decades and the heat content of the ocean has increased. For more, please read my posts. Thank you.

        • John Mashey
          Dec 19, 2009

          Any area of science has a mixture of {ideas, hypotheses, theories} that have various degrees of confidence. The “settled/not-settled” idea is a a flavor of false dichomoty fallacy. Scientists don’t really bother much with issues that are really settled (i.e., in which there is very high confidence). Biologists rarely spend paragraphs reaffirming evolution. When people say of cliamte science that it is settled, what they mean is that it is “settled enough” that: a) It is getting warmer. b) Human actions {greenhouse gasses, land-use changes, aerosols} have been responsible for most of the warming of the last ~50 years, and some of it going back further. {At least to Industrial Revolution, or if Bill Ruddiman’s hypotheses are correct, back to the start of agriculture.} c) On our current emissions path, there will be serious consequences for the overall environment and human civilization. All of those are fairly well-understood via basic physics (incl, Conservation of Energy, the Law), massive amounts of physical and biological data from modern and paleoclimate sources, and fairly straightforward extrapolations that do not need models running on supercomputers. Of course, many things are not settled, especially those dealing with nonlinear effects and “tipping points”, especially because we’re heading for a state {overall temperature & its distribution), concentrations of GHGs, etc} completely outside any range seen since: – human civilization started – modern humans evolved – last few million years of Earth with icecaps. So, climate science is not settled in somewhat the same way as medical science regarding smoking: it is not guaranteed that any particular person will get heart disease or cancer. Some people would take that as a reason to encourage kids to smoke.

          • Ken Towe
            Dec 22, 2009

            “When people say of climate science that it is settled, what they mean is that it is “settled enough”. a) It is getting warmer. b) Human actions {greenhouse gasses, land-use changes, aerosols} have been responsible for most of the warming of the last ~50 years, and some of it going back further. c) On our current emissions path, there will be serious consequences for the overall environment and human civilization. “a” is true. “b” is an inference. Dr. Oppenheimer (Princeton) explains: “The geographic pattern of warming over the past 150 years matches computer simulations of what the warming should have been, given the buildup of greenhouse gases.” “c” is critical, but it is not only an inference it is based on “b”, itself an inference. That may be “settled enough” for climate science (and for you) but computer simulations should not be enough to make global policy based on that science, and especially when other simulations give different results. Remember what Stephen Schneider asserted about climate change (cooling) in the 70s: “The dramatic importance of climatic changes to the world’s future has been dangerously underestimated by many…” Sounds like “c” to me. PS. Take a look at this, John: “The Changing Arctic”: Â http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/mwr/050/mwr-050-11-0589a.pdf. Were human influences responsible… 87 years ago?

            • Bill Chameides
              Dec 22, 2009

              Ken, All good points. But “computer simulations” are not the basis for a global policy on climate. As I have said in numerous posts the basis is found in the data from observations of the earth system.

              • John Mashey
                Dec 27, 2009

                Dr. Chameides is certainly right, but I have an extra reason to have said “…straightforward extrapolations that do not need models running on supercomputers.” I used to be a VP & Chief Scientist @ Silicon Graphics, and among other things, a software, microprocessor, and supercomputer architect. I helped design systems used for, among other things, climate modeling, and I specifically worked with NCAR, GFDL, NASA. That meant spending serious time with their scientists discussing their problems, to understand what our newest computers could help them do, where there were limits from data or science knowledge. Senior technical people @ SGI often had some academic background outside computing. Mine included physics, math, and statistics, which is why *I* visited labs like that often. Computer simulations are valuable for many climate problems, but simple physics is good enough for the basic issues. David Archer’s “Global Warming – Understanding the Forecast” is a text for undergraduate *non-science* majors, and that ought to be enough for most people, perhaps with watching his his course videos. In addition, Spencer Weart’s fine Discvery of Global Warming does a good job explaining how we got here. That humans are doing this is clear from various data, but especially carbon-12 vs carbon-13 isotope ratios, as discussed at RealClimate or many places elsewhere.

                • Ken Towe
                  Jan 1, 2010

                  In his October 26th post 450 or 350, Bill said this: “Climate simulations indicate that if atmospheric CO2 concentrations reach 450 ppm there is a 50-50 chance that global temperatures will exceed the two-degree threshold.” Straightforward extrapolations and simple physics are good enough for basic issues? Using this approach, if we LOWER atmospheric CO2 by 30-40 ppmv how much will the temperature change? This seems fairly basic and straightforward.

                  • Bill Chameides
                    Jan 5, 2010

                    Ken: You can find the answer here: http://www.ipcc.ch/graphics/ar4-wg3/jpg/spm8.jpg

                    • Bill Chameides
                      Jan 5, 2010

                      Or check here – it has a bit more context: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg3/en/figure-spm-8.html

                    • Ken Towe
                      Jan 11, 2010

                      Figure SPM8 was surely generated through climate simulation (which you said was not used by policy makers?). It’s authors appear to have taken some liberty with the direct measurements? Although the scale is difficult to read at the low end (which is the most relevant), the “best estimate” temperature at 300 ppm is shown to be about half-a-degree above zero anomaly. Using the NASA-GISS base period (’51-80), zero is 14°C so this would already be 14.5°C, pre-industrial. In 1988 the NASA-GISS temperature was 14.4°C with CO2 at 350 ppm, 50 ppm higher. Yet this SPM8 shows it above +1°C, i.e., above 15°C. The 1951-1980 base period was 30 years when no significant change in temperature took place, avg. 14.0 ±0.2°C…i.e., “normal”. Yet, CO2 rose 40 ppm. Doesn’t seem to fit.

              • Ken Towe
                Dec 25, 2009

                Which earth system? The one that was observed and measured 40 years ago? Or the one that was measured and inferred from geological and geochemical data ~33 million years ago? The fact is that the “A” part of the “GW” is heavily dependent on computer simulations. Most all of the other earth system observations are tag-alongs, INFERRED to be connected with CO2. (a) the earth is getting warmer, (b) CO2 is rising (all because of an increase in population), (c) mankind is the cause of the warming! What connects (a) with (b) to arrive at (c)? Computer simulations. Global policy relies on this, almost totally.

                • Bill Chameides
                  Dec 29, 2009

                  I’m not sure how John Tierney retains his job at NYT. He loves this idea! The three points you outline above aren’t difficult to comprehend. I guess Mr. McKitrick can be forgiven because he’s…actually, it’s Dr. McKitrick, isn’t it? OK, neither the PhD nor the journalist should be forgiven for this one. It’s transparently bad. Then again, because it is transparently bad, maybe it truly is a misunderstanding on their part and not a genuine attempt to misguide the public.

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