Saturday, April 16, 2005
Quo vadis, vermis desidiosus?
I think there's cracks beginning to appear in the politico-scientific construct of Global Warming... One of the reasons is that one of the most prominent models of changing climate over the past millenium or so - the famous "Hockey Stick" model, which showed a nearly constantly downward climate curve until a sudden rise at the end of the twentieth century - seems to be pretty definitely broken, reinstating a picture of a much more variable climate, with a Medieval Warm Period, a subsequent Little Ice Age, etc. More here, and here. At the last-mentioned link, McKitrick and McIntyre essentially claim that the methodology used for the original "hockey stick" model basically creates hockey stick models out of red noise - random data.
Now, this does not cast doubt on the issue of man-made global warming itself. What it does cast doubt upon is the effectiveness of peer review of for example the IPCC - which failed to turn up the flaws unearthed by McKitrick and McIntyre. It also means that there is significant natural variability in climate - but that does not mean recent climate trends are not anthropogenic.
Why do I nevertheless speak of cracks beginning to appear?
First of all, the question of Global Warming is politicized to an enormous extent. Both the viewpoints of sceptics about the issue as adherents to the idea that Global Warming is man-made, dangerous, and providing a necessity for action such as the Kyoto protocol are inextricably tied up with political questions (whether we can or can not consciously influence such a complex issue as climate in a specific direction, whether transnational political action should have the day, or the mechanisms of the free market, etcetera). All too often, extremely uncertain possible trends are augmented into alarmist worst-case-scenarios in the media, more about that here.
As an example of brazen dishonesty, see how the topic of the declining snow cap of Mt. Kilimanjaro is connected to the issue of man-made climate change, for example here, or here, or this BBC report:
The United States has opted out of the climate change protocol and other countries, including Japan, have said they are only prepared to ratify the agreement if the Morocco conference agrees constructive guidelines. Delegates at the conference have been watching a live videolink with environmental activists on Mount Kilimanjaro - Africa's highest peak.
They were warned that the ice-covered summit of the mountain could have disappeared completly within the next 15 years.
In the past century, Mount Kilimanjaro has already lost 80% of its snow and ice.
Or look here:
MOUNT Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, has been photographed stripped of its millennia-old snow and glacier peak for the first time, in a move used by environmentalists to show the perils of global warming.
The picture is the first time anyone has caught the Tanzanian mountain's dramatic change, according to the Climate Change group which led a project to document the effects of global warming across the world.
The launch of the photo project NorthSouthEastWest coincides with a meeting of environment and energy ministers from 20 countries at a British-sponsored conference on climate change that opened today in London.
It also comes ahead of a further meeting of G8 ministers in Derbyshire, north England, later in the week.
Or do a google search. Now, the problem with this is that, as this article points out, the retreat of Mt. Kilimanjaro glacier has been going around for quite some time - a century, at least - before anthropogenic global warming could have taken off, and cheerfully continued during the period between the 1940s and 1970s - a period of "global cooling". The retreat of the icecap seems mainly connected to changes in local precipitation patterns.
This article on the whole controversy has more than a bit of a taste of sour grapes, particularly in the last paragraph:
We are entirely against the black-and-white picture that says it is either global warming or not global warming," said Prof. Georg Kaser, the paper's lead author and a glaciologist at the Institute for Geography of the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. "As a scientist I'm happy it's more complex, because otherwise it's boring."
Other authors of the new study said they were particularly dismayed that the industry-supported group had portrayed their paper as a definitive refutation of the idea that melting from warming was involved.
"We have a mere 2.5 years of actual field measurements from Kilimanjaro glaciers, unlike many other regions, so our understanding of their relationship with climate and the volcano is just beginning to develop," Dr. Douglas R. Hardy, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts and an author of the paper, wrote by e-mail. "Using these preliminary findings to refute or even question global warming borders on the absurd."
In short, Kilimanjaro may be a photogenic spokesmountain — no matter what the climatic agenda — but it is far from ideal as a laboratory for detecting human-driven warming. The debate over it obscures the nearly universal agreement among glacier and climate experts that glaciers are retreating all over the world, probably as a result of the greenhouse-gas buildup.
Fair enough, but the blame for Mt. Kilimanjaro becoming an unfitting icon for the global warming debate lies wholly with the environmental activists trying to pull a quicky with striking photographs of a retreating glacier.
Anyway, prophecies of impending doom have a typically short shelf-life. The bandwagon may easily run to the other extreme. A Dutch television program, Netwerk, dedicated an item to McKitrick's and McIntyre's research which can be found online here. Now, Netwerk is not a particularly good program. I generally find them to be moralizing and shallow to the extreme. Their item on Kyoto and Global Warming was not one-sided in favour of alarmism, though, but one-sided in favour of the view that the Kyoto protocol is absolute bunk. This surprised me greatly, and perhaps it indicates which way the wind blows.
But my main reason for thinking that within a few years, the world will have moved on to a new armaggedon scare is that some among the more alarmist left seem to have already found one. Particularly the Idleworm has been going on about peak oil the last weeks, for example, here, here, and here. The last link contains an ominous sign that the Idleworm is cocooning into Yuppie Green New Age Worm:
Whether or not we're going to end up like Mad Max in that Mad Max movie, it's a good idea to get off your arse and walk more, eat less, consume less, switch off lights when you leave a room (duh), try to cut out red meat (your fart-stench will decrease by 5000%), buy food grown closer to home (no more wines from Chile, unless you live in Chile), grow some veggies if you can, etc. etc. etc. I'm healthier and happier since I began doing more and eating less - my 34 inch lardo waistline is now a hunkerific 32, I've lost 25 lbs in 2 months, never felt better. I no longer need to "wash mahself with a rag on a stick". I'm having to take a baseball bat to work in the morning, to beat away the hordes of women.
How deep have the mighty fallen! Anyway, I partially blame this on the understandable shock of having seen Bush re-elected in November. The idea of aforementioned low-browed hominid in charge of the world's largest nuclear arsenal makes armaggedon look surprisingly desirable. The Daily Kos seems to suffer from this symptom a bit, too.
The idea behind "Peak Oil" is that, as fossil fuels are a finite reserve, oil production will peak long before we have actually run out of fossil fuels - as remaining oil fields will be progressively harder and more expensive to pump as we are nearing the end. Idleworm believes this time is nigh. What will happen if we do run out of cheap oil is a big question mark. Oil is used in lots of products. And where you can heat homes and so on with nuclear energy, for example, we can't make a car run on uranium quite yet.
Whether we run out of cheap oil in the envisionable future depends first of all on whether oil is really a fossil fuel. Recently, an abiotic theory of petroleum origin has been proposed by the late astrophysicist Thomas Gold. Gold basically argued that hydrocarbons constantly bubble up from really deep below the earth's surface, and that organic remnants - causing it to have an apparent fossil origin - are really caused by a "deep hot biosphere" of extremophile micro-organisms who, basically, like to swim around in the stuff. Tests of this idea seem to have been inconclusive. Upon Gold's suggestion, the Swedish government drilled deep into the granite bedrock and did, indeed, strike oil - though no commercially viable amounts - but as I understand (which is not much), fossil oil could have basically seeped down through cracks and pores. So let's assume that the current consensus - that fossil fuels are really fossil fuels - is correct.
If so, then at some point we will run out of the stuff. The question is when. There are alternative sources for oil such as shale oil, and tar sands, the exploitation of which is pioneered by the Canadian government. At the moment, though, the price of exploitation is too high to make it a viable commercial alternative to "normal" oil. However, it would be a big mistake to assume the price would always remain that high. If indeed we will run out of cheap oil sources, investing into shale oil and tar sands, would become attractive - and likewise, investing into research leading to more economically viable ways of production.
The optimistic oil scenario would assume that the market will do its work in stimulating creativity at a time of need. The earth's resources are not finite, as what counts as a resource or not is dependent on technological factors. Uranium was not a natural resource a century ago. Similarly, shale oil might become one, yet. The pessimistic scenario, argued by Idleworm and James Howard Kunstler, argues that particularly the United States, with its urban sprawl, non-existent public transport, and concomitant serious oil addiction, would not be able to adapt to changing circumstances without some serious social upheaval.
I'm opting for the optimistic scenario. The main reason is that the imminent prediction of the end of cheap oil is nothing new. Predictions have come and gone since the early 20th century. As many more doom scenarios - such as the overpopulation predictions of Paul Ehrlich during the 1970s. Most of these predictions seem, to me, to be seriously underestimating mankind's capability of adapting to changing circumstances, and utilizing new technologies and new resources, finding new life and new civilizations, and to generally boldly go where no one has gone before.
Finally, I think that at least part of the peak oil discussion on the left is tied up with the idea, current among the anti-war movement, that the war in Iraq was basically a desperate grab for resources. A kind of Command & Conquer Marxism, if you like. I think, and it pains me to say that I am, for once, in agreement with Harry's Place, that the "blood for oil" theory is crap.
Picture the following train of thought:
Question: Peak oil is imminent, and we are running out of cheap oil. What do we do?
Answer: Invade one of the primary oil-producing countries in the world, bomb it to rubble, overthrow a cruel but stable dictatorship with no real plan for what we put in its place, and see the country descend into a low-intensity civil war which could last for a decade.
See the problem here? No competent oil company would support the invasion of Iraq. Particularly as probably Saddam would have been happy so sell of some of its oil fields for lifting of the sanctions and perhaps US support for his regime. I think there's a variety of rational and irrational motivations behind the war in Iraq, and oil isn't one of them. First, I think that the American neoconservatives are serious about imposing liberal democracies with military might. They genuinely believe it works that way. And I think that they agree, though they may be loath to say it, with some of America's detractors on one count: that 9/11 was at least partially a blowback resulting from, for example, US arming of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The neocons in the US probably do believe that liberal democracies in the Middle East are the best guarantee against islamic terrorism.
Also, Iraq was invaded because it didn't have WMDs and didn't seriously support terrorism. But three of its neighbouring countries - Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, did support terrorism, and one of them, Iran, is quite serious about Weapons of Mass Destruction. A successful war in Iraq would put American troops on the borders of all three of them. Of course, Iraq is not as stable a bridgehead as the Americans probably expected.
But the left antiwar movement will have to scuttle the ludicrous blood-for-oil argument. It's not even vulgar Marxism, it's something quite worse than that. Marxism does not mean all policies must have secret economical motivations behind them. Historical materialism does not mean that ideal motivations, rational or irrational, can start to live a life of their own and influence policy decisions, for better or for worse. The 20th century has seen enough of the latter, one would think.
Merlijn de Smit