Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Global Warming?

After a discussion on global warming with my daughter, Nicole, I realized I have not really addressed this issue in a direct way in this blog. And, though I'm not an environmental scientist, my background and interest in science, engineering and economics mean I may be able to put a practical spin on the topic, a rare feat in today's politically charged environment.

First, the concept. That increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG) will, all else being equal, increase the temperature of the earth, is beyond dispute. The kicker in that statement is the "all else being equal" qualifier, because another sure bet is that in the environment, all else is never equal.

What this means is that, to evaluate the long term effects of mankind's GHG on the earth, you have to fully understand and quantify a number of other factors, such as:
  • The proportion of GHG created by man's activities vs natural activities. A huge volume of GHG is created by natural processes, ranging from digestion of creatures to decomposition of organic material and volcanic processes.
  • The earth's GHG limiting actions. Will vegetation grow faster (and therefore absorb more carbon dioxide) in an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide? Will the oceans absorb more GHG, and if so, how will that effect water supported vegetation? Will the oceans absorb or release methane, a very potent GHG? Will warming lead to more water/clouds in the atmosphere thereby offsetting the GHG effect with reflective effects?
  • Long term storage mechanisms. The GHG generated by burning of hydrocarbons was, after all, stored by previous generations. By using them, are we restoring the natural balance. And, if left in the ground, would these hydrocarbons eventually perculate to the surface in even more potent forms, such as methane? Will the creation and storage of hydrocarbons increase in an era of increased GHG?
  • How does the GHG timeframe mesh with solar variations and the end of the hydrocarbon era, which obviously is approaching at some rate? If you doubt that the hydrocarbon era will be ending any time soon, see previous posts about the viablility of alternatives and conservation technology at today's prices.
  • How significant would the effects of global warming be in the grand scheme of things. After all, sea levels have varied over time much more than the effects predicted by even the most ardent believer in global warming. Ice ages have been created by volcanoes and meteorite collisions. What seems huge to us today could be small, or even offsetting, to numerous possibilities we can barely fathom.

So the answer, after considering all these factors, and more I haven't listed, or even thought of, is....drum roll, please.... I don't know, and no one else does either.

So, what do we do? We conserve when it makes sense. We use lower carbon sources when feasible, say using natural gas rather than coal. We invest in lower carbon energy alternatives when it makes sense. We try to rationally balance the very real issues of today with a low risk, high consequence problem tomorrow, without trying to enforce draconian changes which destroy our economy, dramatically decrease our standard of living today or create black markets to circumvent the draconian measures imposed.

And, that, in large measure, is the process I try to help with in this blog. So, read along, participate in the process. Along the way, you can make good investments, you can save money, you can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, you can raise our standard of living. That is a process, it seems to me, we can all look forward to and be proud of.


max said...

I rec'd the following comments by email from Shawn, and I thought they should be posted. Apparently, warming which occurs as a result of other causes actually increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because it increases the rate of decomposition of organic matter, one of the main natural sources of GHG emissions.

"I was reading your energy blog discussion on global warming and thought I would add some information I have heard from climatetologist I heard talking about the subject on the radio.

The paleo-climatologist say that the current greenhouse gas movement cheerleaders have several key scientific facts wrong. They say the the greenhouse gases such a carbon dioxide level increases historically come after the warming begins, so scientist's consider it to be an effect of the warming and not a cause. They say we are definately are in a warming trend and they have identified about 600 cooling/warming trends as far back as they can find evidence. As for whether the current trend is caused by humans? Only during the last 3 or 4 cycles have humans even been on the earth. (So what caused the first 595 cycles; certainly not humans!) Only this last cycle has there been any cars or significant industrial activity. In fact, most of the current warming took place from 1880 to 1920 and there was a cooling period during the 60's and 70's and has only recently started warming again. Also, they note that planets in our solar system including Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn and others are also experiencing a warming trend right now. I heard this week that Nasa has been studying solar activity and was suprised in the wide variation and current high intensity in solar activity. Our sun's intensity also varies in cycles and it would seem logical to assume that with the warming effect on other planets in our solar system, it may be the main source of the current Earth warming cycle."


Frédéric said...

It's uncorrect to say that increased CO2 following higher Temp is due to more decomposition of organic matter. It's due to the ocean absorbing less CO2 (Raoult law).
Want to know more? go to and follow the links.
Or more entertaining, look at the Great Global Warming Swindle

max said...

Frederic, thanks. The Global Warming Swindle clip is pretty interesting and puts a lot of science around many of the points I've been making.