one step closer to explaining the universe or just a tiny step ahead of chaos

Whenever I look at new climate change reports I wonder if we are one step closer to explaining the universe or just a tiny step ahead of chaos. My gut feeling is that chaos is laughing nearby.

My wife is a fan of the McLaughlin Group. One of the little games we play to make the show more interesting is to guess which subjects they will discuss. The game is easy if you are reasonably in touch with the political news for the week. Last Friday they surprised us. They discussed global warming. There wasn’t any recent news that I knew of to trigger this discussion so it was fascinating to me that they chose this subject. They rehashed old political views on the overwhelming consensus among the scientists, the unwillingness of the Bush administration to do something about global warming, the conspiracy of the oil and coal companies, and the impending apocalypse if action was not taken immediately. In a way I found it amusing. The commentators seemed to be straining to be passionate about the subject.

During October I saw an interesting trend in two blogs that I follow. I noticed that the BBC started putting out global warming articles about once a week. I think the impetus was a report compiled by Sir Nicolas Stern that revised previous forecasts with more severe financial penalties to the world if action was not taken on global warming immediately. It is a well written report whose primarily purpose is to refute Lonborg’s argument that our money would help society more if it was spent on solvable, current problems, such as, drinkable water and malaria.

The other blog that seemed to erupt in October was the World Climate Report. They comment on a lot of scientific articles on climate research and during October and November they had a lot to write about. The “hockey stick” graph which is one of the keystones of global warming debate continues to draw more skeptics in the scientific community. It is not hard to pick on the “hockey stick” graph. The primary problem with the hockey stick data is that the scientists have to “guess” at the temperature before 1900. Scientists prefer to use the word “proxy” but for the common man it is just an educated guess. The primary way of estimating temperature where no direct measurements are available is to look at tree rings. Yea, we are thinking about spending billions of dollars based on tree rings. Some scientists have problems with relying solely on this method. Another problem with the “hockey stick” graph is that this data appears to be too “smooth”. The graph curiously wipes out the “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age”. History books from these two time periods have led scientists to believe that the temperatures were much warmer than normal in the Medieval Warm Period and much cooler than normal in the Little Ice Age. Puzzles like this intrigue scientists. It is not surprising that when these skeptical scientists chose an alternate proxy, they found a greater variability in the temperature data. Whether you chose stalagmites in China or diatoms in Finland, the “Medieval Warm Period” and the “Little Ice Age” are visible on the temperature graphs. They also found that the increased variability in the temperature was a worldwide phenomenon so it maybe related to solar output. Another trend you can conclude from the temperature data is that the warmest 30 year period is not the last thirty years. Despite our global warming the Finland study concluded that the warmest period was probably 1470-1500 while a separate Greenland temperature study concluded that the 1930s and 1940s were the warmest decades in the twentieth century.

Several other global warming predictions also suffered. The most obvious casualty was the link between global warming and severe storms. The severity of the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons convinced many people that a link must exist. Severe hurricanes and global warming seemed a natural fit to the media and politicians. Several politicians chimed in on this link after Katrina. In 2005 the head of NOAA forecast a trend of severe hurricanes for the years to come. I can only guess he was trying to be politically correct. Although it did not get the publicity of the global warming predictions, the scientific studies and models for hurricanes have always maintained that hurricanes have a weak relationship with global warming trends. Other factors continue to be more important in determining the severity of the hurricane season. As the 2006 hurricane season comes to a close, there have been zero hurricanes to hit the U. S. Even the people far inland noticed that the 2006 hurricane season was extremely quiet. It is interesting to review the Stern report and see that they forecast a doubling in damage costs due to increased hurricane intensity due to global warming. Having lived on the Gulf Coast for eighteen years I feel I have a good, practical understanding of hurricanes. The biggest problem with hurricane damage costs is that there are too many people living in the prime hurricane zones. It is not the intensity of the storm but the amount of rain that comes with it that causes most of the damage. I was ten times more worried about flooding than wind damage. Many coastal areas cannot get flood insurance because they flood. This is not rocket science! Attributing a doubling in damage costs to global warming is a stretch.

Another interest tidbit is the Gulf Stream does not appear to be slowing. This slowdown or cessation had been popularized in Al Gore and in the movie, “The Day after Tomorrow”. A slowing of Gulf Stream leads some scientists to speculate about the next European Ice Age. After a little bit more data was collected and analyzed by scientists in the UK, most of the scientists have concluded, “… that we have not seen any significant change of Atlantic circulation to date”.

The final interesting tidbit is drought. Water vapor and soil moisture have always been the toughest climate variables to predict. A common prediction is that the increased temperature will melt glaciers worldwide and increase sea levels. In other areas the increased temperature will cause more droughts. I find it amazing that most of this water did not return to the earth in form of rain or snow. I know it did when I lived in Houston. Heat plus humidity equals afternoon showers. The common explanation is that the greater evaporation overwhelms the increases in precipitation. I didn’t notice that result in Houston. Despite the heat wave that affected most of the United States last year, our farm in Ohio had our best growing season for grass since we have owned the farm. We rely on rain water for our drinking water, too. During the summer we get water delivered to supplement our rain water collection. This summer we did not have any water delivered. This has not happened before in the eight years we have lived here. That’s curious! Some scientists share my curiosity about the relationship of heat and water vapor and they have backed up their conclusions with scientific studies. Despite the summer heat wave the draught severity index shows above average moisture conditions for a big chunk of the U. S. The graph confirms my observation that Ohio has above average soil moisture for this year. A Columbia University study analyzed some historical moisture data and they believe the link to droughts is marginally stronger with colder weather than it is with warmer weather. They conclude with their belief that the strongest link to droughts in the U.S. is with the formation of the weather pattern called, La Niña. To the Columbia University study global temperature change did not appear to be a significant factor.

That is not good news for the supporters of Sir Nicolas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change. Recent scientific studies tend to confirm that the global temperature estimations have shown much greater temperature swings than as portrayed in the original “hockey stick” graphs. Both Greenland and Finland appear to have been warmer in the past than today. The greater the variability in the temperature data, the less confident we are at linking greenhouse gases to future temperature trends. If we cannot confidently predict that future temperature changes are based on greenhouse gases, carbon based taxes do not make sense. New taxes are disruptive. Global warming solutions will be disruptive. If we do not get a big benefit from the disruption, carbon taxes could end up being a “fool’s errand”. The breakdown in the linkages of hurricanes and drought with global warming erode more of his financial assumptions and social priorities. The primary methods of reducing the financial and social impact of hurricanes do not involve greenhouse gases. We need less people living along the coasts. Since that is not likely to occur, it makes more sense to spend our money reducing flooding and improving construction practices than reducing greenhouse gases. If continuing scientific studies confirm that regional weather patterns are the primary determinant of droughts, then the prudent government planners will focus on implementing irrigation projects and encouraging better farming practices. These are proven methods of improving crop yields in all countries. Droughts and famines have been with us throughout recorded history. The biggest impediment to reducing famine in Africa is local politics not greenhouse gases. Global warming advocates have attempted to include all the world’s ailments under the global warming umbrella. Blaming greenhouse gases from developed countries for the drought and famines in Africa is counter-productive. The big umbrella approach to global warming diverts our attention from the real problems confronting this world. Real problems require focused solutions and constant attention.