Posted by: David Hone

Our Climate Fate On The Toss Of A Coin?

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Perhaps in response to the initial findings of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project and the reported disappointment of some climate skeptics after the lead of the project testified before a Congressional committee, the Wall Street Journal Europe published an article on April 5th (click here for those without a WSJ subscription) by former commodity market statistician Douglas Keenan which questions the significance, in statistical terms, of the warming of the planet over the last century.

With Keenan trying to explain the significance of the global temperature anomaly in terms of a series of coin tosses and the Berkeley project examining billions of pieces of historical temperature data, much (layman) attention now seems to be on the statistical evidence buried in the many collected actual and proxy temperature series, rather than attempting to think about the issue in basic physics terms. This brings me back to a book I read last year by renowned climate scientist James Hansen, titled Storms of My Grandchildren. Hansen clearly and simply explains the notion of the earth’s heat balance and the very subtle changes that humankind is making to it by adding CO2 to the atmosphere. But, as he clearly illustrates, these changes, while small in comparison to the total heat flux of the planet, will lead to very significant long term impacts if left unchecked. He argues that the current shift in heat flux is already greater than the difference between recent glacial and interglacial periods and we know that difference corresponds to some 100 metres of sea level change (over a long period – see chart below). 

Therein lies the dilemma of this issue. A simple physics based model using well understood and universally accepted parameters such as Planck’s constant leads to the view that even a small variation in the global heat balance has the potential to shift sea level by many metres. Rather than acting on our understanding of this problem, it has instead sent us rushing to our thermometers to check and see what might actually be happening and whether we can discern a trend upon which we should then act. But waiting for that trend to become blindingly obvious, even to the likes of Douglas Keenan, is folly in itself, given the almost irreversible nature of the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere and the response of the climate system to the resulting change in surface heat flux.

While examining the temperature record is a vital part of the process, we should also remember that this issue is not one we just happened to stumble across when looking at temperature. There is a clear physical basis for what is going on, identified long before there was any sign of it in current records.

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David Hone

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member and Chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Additionally, he works closely with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and has been a lead contributor to many of its recent energy and climate change ...

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April 10, 2011

Rick Engebretson says:

Certainly the atmosphere composition plays a role in radiation spectral properties. And the atmosphere deserves understanding and respect.

But the surface blackbody re-radiation is also a powerful factor in energy flux. Unless surface properties are included in the overall analysis you certainly are not doing honest physics.

Along with the changed CO2 in the atmosphere, we have changed the surface. Understanding the impact of humans on climate is critical. So let's do some real physics and include the changed surface properties.

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April 12, 2011

A guest says:


Arguably, since a high percentage of the US surface temperature measuring stations are located where the surface properties have been altered, we are not even doing honest temperature measurement.

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April 12, 2011

Rick Engebretson says:

Thanks, Ed. I agree, and then some.

In rural Minnesota we have been encouraged to plant trees for 100 years. Minneapolis originally had no trees. Evergreens are a favorite, because that's where the snow melts first, by a week or two.

Hay crop (grassy) fields always retain snow longer than plowed fields. Farmers want warm soil for good planting.

And of course the cities empty out in summer when people rush to rural areas to escape the heat.

To argue endlessly about obscure atmosperics, while ignoring common sense, then hurling insults and fanning fear; what can we do?

I'm not even confident in their atmospheric spectral analysis, though I've never bothered to check it out. The physics of optical scattering, refractive index, angle of incidence, etc., over a spheroid is highly complex. When they sketch their vectors any physicist in the field cringes.

Mostly, I've had enough of their arrogance.

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April 12, 2011

A guest says:

Our Economic Fate on the Rings of a Single Tree?

We understand some of the basic physics well enough, but do not understand the roles of clouds or precipitation very well. Some of us assume that the physics we do understand is far more important than the physics we don't understand.

We know that the climate has changed continually over the millenia, but do not understand why. However, we claim that we do understand the current changes.

Some of us even deny the existence of historical climate change events, such as the MWP and the LIA. (Those people are never called "deniers".)

We know that Kevin Trenberth continues to ask: "Where's the heat?"(Apologies to Clara Peller.) Perhaps Hansen knows where it is.

We eagerly await Keith Briffa's new book: A Tree Grows in Yamal. ;-)

We are very interested in surface temperature, but apparently cannot measure it accurately, though we claim to be able to "grid" it, "in-fill" it, "homogenize" it and otherwise adjust it. Some of us even claim we can measure it accurately, and request appropriation of an additional $100 million so that we can do so.

Some of us tend (try?) to forget that data simply are. Good data are readings taken from properly selected, properly located, properly calibrated and properly maintained instruments. All other data are either bad data or missing data. Bad data cannot be massaged into good data. Missing data are always simply missing. Once data are gridded, in-filled, homogenized, folded, bent, spindled and/or mutilated, they become "un-data", unsuitable for any further legitimate use. Even Rumpelstiltskin could not make good data from "un-data".  

Hansen apparently believes that global annual carbon emissions must cease ASAP; and, that atmospheric CO2 concentrations must be reduced to 350 ppm. Based on the IEA estimate of $45 trillion over and above the "business-as-usual" scenario to reduce global annual CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050, complete elimination of global annual CO2 emissions would likely require investment of on the order of $100-150 trillion, assuming that all of the nations of the globe participated. I have seen no estimates of the investment and cost involved in restoring atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm.

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