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Posted by: David Hone

Back to Basics on Climate Science

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Last week I had the privilege to attend an MIT forum and listen to the keynote address given by Nobel laureate Mario Molina. The subject of the address was the issue of conveying an understanding of the science of climate change to the general public. Professor Molina won the Nobel Prize and is best known for his work in identifying the role of chloro-fluorocarbons in the destruction of the ozone layer. Unlike the current state of paralysis that seems to be encompassing the international talks on climate change the Montreal Protocol, which underpins the global reduction in the use of CFCs, was negotiated with relative ease. But the nature of the problems are very different.

Turning back to the keynote address, Molina lamented on the poor job that scientists had seemingly done in conveying what is, in his view at least, a relatively simple and well understood physical phenomena governed by a set of known equations. In addressing the audience, he asked quite simply in his soft understated tone “What is it about Planck’s Law and the Boltzmann constant that is now in dispute?”. A similar question was asked for Kirchhoff’s Law and the other equations which can be used to calculate the observed temperature of the atmosphere, all of which have been developed over the last century and can be found in books such as Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry, by Daniel J. Jacob, Princeton University Press, 1999. Most if not all of these physical laws were discovered for reasons unrelated to atmospheric chemistry, but of course can be applied to this discipline as they also can to explain a multitude of other physical phenomena on display in the world we inhabit.

In fact none of this basic physics and chemistry is in dispute – if it were then we shouldn’t be surprised that a multitude of the devices we use in everyday life, from iPad’s to microwave ovens, wouldn’t work as expected – or in reality wouldn’t exist in the first place. All depend on the same physical principles that also make up our understanding of the workings of the atmosphere and the impact of a change in its composition.

Yet time and again we are confronted by commentators claiming the issue is a hoax and the science is fraudulent. This played out again in Australia over recent days as British climate sceptic Christopher Monckton toured the country and delivered a series of lectures.

Professor Molina didn’t have a solution to this problem, other than to recall the successful transition from initial scepticism to eventual action and international agreement on CFCs. He noted that this was to some extent down to the role of business as new refrigerants were developed to replace CFCs. Unfortunately the climate problem is an order of magnitude or two more complex than the ozone layer issue, given our near total reliance on fuels and industrial processes which emit CO2. The issue also runs headlong into the sensitive issues of energy dependence, human development, economics and national security, further complicating the solution set.

But we could at least start by recognising that physics and chemistry are part of our lives and that the society we have built depends totally on the laws, constants and algorithms that have developed from these disciplines, which includes our understanding of the processes in the atmosphere. Then perhaps there is room for a more grown up debate on the way forward.



Authored by:

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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July 8, 2011

Jonathan Cole says:

While I love to hear people express their opinions on the details of this theory or that, this application of the laws of physics/chemistry or some other interpretation, it is somewhat akin to "fiddling while Rome burns". CO2 induced climate change is just the tip of the iceberg that the world is about to ram into. The multiple cumulative effects of the industrial revolution are destroying the functioning of the natural world upon which we depend for life, health and prosperity. If we don't get off the combustion/pollution track, nature will respond with massive depopulation. If you take your head out of the climate change sand, you'll start noticing the many other destructive effects of industrial activity, whose economic underpinnings takes no account of any of the real costs to the health of planetary eco-system. Those who shill for industry just love to limit the discussion to little arguable details. The depletion of the oceans through pollution and over-use, the contamination of the atmosphere world-wide and the massive depletion and poisoning of the soil by erosion and chemicals are measurable facts. Every human being now has measurable contaminants in their bodies. Mother's milk is contaminated. Chemicals previously considered safe are now shown to be extremely dangerous. I think we have to start shouting down the ignorant purveyors of the "everything is just fine" theory or else be willing participants in our own demise and suffering. Our choice.

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July 6, 2011

A guest says:

The basics are too linear to explain the "complex dynamic system" of climate.  Likewise, understanding the biology of reproduction doens't help explain population shifts across the planet.

Until the climate models explain/predict observations, they are unworthy of the high status required of an event to begin dumbing down the issue for the public.  Dumbing down an issue of lower status results in propaganda, not education.

Moreover, poor models and propaganda are too easily combined with cash and fame to produce a horrible result with decades of effects.

 

Complex dynamic systems (e.g., weather, stock markets, social behavior) do not lend themselves to linear equations.  Starting over from the beginning is required for the scientists, not for the publicists. 

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July 7, 2011

A guest says:

You raise an important point, which the brief account of the physics given above did not attempt to explain. Those equations only predict how the average temperature of the troposphere will be affected by increasing the CO2. They do not predict, and are not intended to predict, any individual weather event. Climate refers to long-term trends in the weather, and isolated weather events do not a trend make. It is nevertheless impossible to have a major change in any average property of the weather without certain weather events becoming either more common, more extreme, or both. Doesn't matter how complicated the instantaneous local dynamics of the system are. In the case of the stock market, for example, it is widely accepted that a diversified portfolio held for a long period of time will grow faster than inflation. Plenty of people nonetheless prefer to take their chances in Las Vegas. That's there choice, and I frankly don't care because they won't drag those of us who know better to the poor house with them. That is, unfortunately, not true of the anti-climate-change lobby, which is why I am taking the trouble to write this. *moderated

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July 5, 2011

A guest says:

Many people including polticians, (eg Mitt Romney) accept that human activity has a major part in climate change. However nothing in the equations above, or in UN publications convincingly set forth how drastic curbs on carbon will reverse climate change, in what time frame, and what the interaction with non-human sources of climate change is. The reality is that scientists don't know the answers to the questions the public rightfully demands prior to suffering sacrifice and loss in the face of economic decline for other extrinsic reasons. If scientists knew, they would have conveyed the evidence to sympathetic governments in the US and UK. The fact is, climate changes, perhaps for the worse in the short term, but the solutions may be theories without convincing outputs.

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July 5, 2011

A guest says:

My understanding of the science is this (note, I am not a climate scientist, so feel free to do your own research :)

-a simplified black-body representation of the earth suggests doubling the CO2 in the atmosphere results in about a 1 degree C rise in temps

-Current CO2 concentrations are about 385 ppm and this is rising about 2ppm per year.

-Together, these science basics suggest about a one-half degree C rise in temp over the next century from CO2.

I think a large majority would agree with these basics.  However, the predictions are for temperature increases of 2 degree C at the low end.  Where did the extra increase come from?  It comes from assuming positive feedbacks in the climate system, primarily from water vapor.  Higher temperatures result in more evaporation, which results in more water vapor (itself a green house gas), which results in more warming, etc.

As I understand the scientific debate right now, it is primarily about the feedbacks, not about the basics.  If you stick to the basics, you logically do not find carbon emissions particularly alarming (0.5 degree C is almost universally seen as too small to warrant much action).  If you believe the complex climate system has positive feedbacks, you are very concerned.  If you believe in zero or negative feedbacks (e.g. warming increases water vapor which increases clouds, which reflect heat and mitigate the rise), then you are not concerned.

It is critical to realize lots of intelligent people can agree with the basics and not buy into the feedback induced hysteria. 

J

The only problem is that one-half degree celsius is not seen as of particular concern. 

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July 5, 2011

Rick Engebretson says:

I did something like this for my Ph.D. work. I calculated the probability density distribution for proton exchange kinetics in large globular proteins. A sphere was used as a model and statistical mechanical tunneling was generalized. Very similar to thermal excitation radiation models from a surface (blackbody sphere).

It matters greatly that we address the climate issue with proper solutions. We might not get a do-over. The physics does matter.

 

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July 5, 2011

A guest says:

When you push the basic physics exclusively, the first response you will get will be non-scientist skeptics saying, well what about the negative feedback effects like, as noted, cloud cover, increased plant growth, historical temps exceeding present day for whatever reason, etc.  You can't ignore the intuitive reaction to this.  You can dismiss them all as a pack of sub-morons for not taking the time to read all about the subject, or you can just deal with it.

Models need to be simplified to educate the public, but all aspects and somehow some quantification of the relative importance of all the inputs and outputs needs to happen.  But you can't just push the CO2 effect without accounting for the rest.  The public will notice and will write you off as pushing an egenda by ignoring their concerns about the rest, which to them, rightly or wrongly. are as important. 

They don't want this phenomenon to be occuring, and they will latch onto ANY seemingly opposite info for support that it really isn't happening.   In a way, that's understandable.  Climate scientists and more importantly, science writers in the media have gotten off on the wrong foot by sensationalizing so many topics over the years and by being wrong so many times.  The media cries wolf and nobody pays attention anymore.  It's a self-made predicament, no doubt about it.

 

 

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July 2, 2011

Rick Engebretson says:

There is a key difference between ozone and UV influx, and re-radiated out flux. And that is the surface!

The earth's surface is many things, but not an ideal blackbody where pure probability and statistical mechanics determines vibrational relaxation radiative transition distributions. Indeed, the hydrogen oxygen bond is probably the highest frequency vibration possible due to the low weight proton and strong O-H bond. This feature has made water identified with complex life. Perhaps rotational transitions (microwave) of water contribute to re-radiation effected by CO2, I don't know.

The over simplifications aside, climate change due to industrial society is real and documented and important. It is just far more complicated than the simple model above. And I'm glad your response to Paul expands.

Something I have not seen discussed (I don't see too much) is what might be called Minnesota snow. Every winter we dump salt and sand on the snow. Then dirty, salty snow always melts first. Might a sooty atmosphere effect ice melt? Soot can be associated with industrial age activities along with CO2.

 

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July 2, 2011

Jim Baird says:

David since the problem is heat build-up and the science that relates to this is Thermodynamics; I am at a loss as to why we are not approaching the problem thermodynamically.

Over 80 percent of warming's impact has been on the upper layer of the ocean.

The First law of thermodynamics dictates that, "the increase in the internal energy of a system is equal to the amount of energy added by heating the system minus the amount lost as a result of the work done by the system on its surroundings."

It seems to me the obvious answer is to convert as much of this accumulating heat to usable power as we can?

 

 

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July 2, 2011

A guest says:

There is so much buzz about Climate Change and Ozone Depletion skeptisim, I believe its our bad in times the world and scientific community need to look at the way forward and protect ourselves and the environment from what may become an emergency in the future.

As we await the natural recovery of the ozone layer in the middle of this 21st century and keep from use of Ozone Depleting Substances, we can also look in direction of artificial repair of the ozone hole from the stratosphere, this appears very possible looking at the photochemical reactions at the stratosphere and space technologies available today that can travel to stratospheric height.

If we load liquid oxygen on a stratospheric-flying aircraft or airship from here, when it travels up, it can discharge that oxygen as gas to depleted parts of the ozone layer to join in reactions that lead to making and breaking of ozone molecules at the stratosphere, which will lead to more ozone molecules and help against depletion.

This may not be required now or so quick, but can be undergo rigorous scientific and technical review to be saved for used as it may be needed. The research work is detail at:

http://stephaz.webs.com/ozoneholerecovery.htm

 

 

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July 1, 2011

A guest says:

Basic data falsifies claims of surging seas, Ts and ice melt.

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July 1, 2011

Paul O says:

David,

Let me bring forth  reasons for skepticism and place it front and center. And before I do that, I want to state that any kind of fanatical exuberrance, boorish insulting and berrating behaviour, even for a good cause totally turns me off.

 

Here is the key question,

* Does the Observed  Temperature of the planet, OR the Observed Increase in Temperature of the Planet match the Mathematically expected (or predicted) Temperature of the Planet, or the Mathematically expected (or predicted) increase in temperature of the Planet, given the known CO2 content or known CO2 content increase of the atmosphere.

In other words, we know the composition of the atmosphere, we know the radiant output of the sun, we know the mass of the earth, we know the thermal coefficients of air, water, soils/desserts etc.  Does the physics bear a close correlation with the observation?

This is the crux of the Climate debate. If the Science does not match the observation in a clear and demonstrable manner, then what does it all mean?

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July 2, 2011

David Hone says:

The short answer here is "Yes". The original application of Plank's Law to calculate the temperature of the surface of the planet fell far short of the observed temperature. Since Plank's Law seemingly worked in other applications it implied that another process was underway - which turned out to be the effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This was the work done by the likes of Arrhenius about 120 years ago. Even at that point he was able to calculate the temperature variation that would occur if the level of CO2 was adjusted and that was long before anybody even imagined that such a thing might be possible, other than say through volcanic action. What we see today is a dynamic process underway where the temperature is still catching up to the change in CO2, but of course the level of CO2 continues to rise as well. The secondary effects that are less certain and may either counter some of this or add to it are effects on cloud cover (as water levels in the atmosphere also rise), albedo in the arctic etc. But I think we need to stand by the basic physics.

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