In Which I Continue my Global Warming Skepticism

A while back I posted some thoughts on the disheartening tendency of many well-meaning folks to embrace global warming as the explanation for many recent natural disasters.

What drove me to blog about this were my golfing buddies who automatically assumed that Hurricane Sandy was directly attributable to climate change “caused” by global warming.

The post sparked a great conversation that continues to draw attention from readers. Given the heated nature (pun intended) of the topic, I was impressed with the cordial responses from both sides.

In the ensuing weeks, not only did my post continue to attract interest, the broader conversation continues. Not surprisingly, the advocates are out in spades.

In the 1/14/2013 edition of the Austin American Statesman a reader opined:

It comes at us from all angles. Just this week we have lots of Austin American-Statesman news: 1.) 2012 hottest year on record — a whopping 3.2°F above normal; 2.) Highways near Galveston under threat of high water sooner than expected; 3.) LCRA cuts off rice farmers with Lake Travis at only 41 percent. As the blind man feels around the elephant — all these stories feel like elephant.

That elephant is climate change. We may believe i’s too big to talk about. But we’ll have to spend $60 billion to help New York and New Jersey recover and prepare for the next storm. What about that next storm in Galveston/Houston or New Orleans?

Is the cost of moving off carbon fuels too high? The cost of not moving to renewable energy is both persistent and much, much higher: Drought, heat, rising oceans, crop failures, tropical diseases, hurricanes and more…

Probably killer asteroids, alien invasions, and Ice 9 doom as well. (Remember Vonnegut?)

And in the 1/15/2013 edition of the paper we read this:

More than individual catastrophes, the trend of high temperatures and reduced precipitation is changing the world our parents gave us and may ruin the world our children will inherit…Climate change is a challenge that we can win by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and investing in renewables

What is so striking to me is the assumption that what we’re seeing in terms of weather and temperature is unique. And what is so galling is the presumption that petroleum geologists, and by extension anyone who works in the upstream Oil & Gas business, can’t be trusted to honestly look at the facts. I begin to feel like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men who screams at Tom Cruise, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

I’ve started wondering why we are so willing to take leave of our capability to think and instead choose to gleefully force 2+2 to equal 13.

And then it hit me.

We, as a species, need stereotypes. We gotta have ‘em.

Life is too much work if every occurrence, every action, every behavior is rationally examined for cause and effect. Once you start intellectually turning over rocks to see what’s underneath, then all sorts of possibilities suggest themselves to you and life just gets way too complicated! Better to have an easy tribal meme like global warming that the tribal cognoscenti can unite behind than it is to have the really inconvenient truth manifest itself—that our climate is a product of the forces that rule the earth, and that our earth has been moving, warping, colliding, fracturing, heating and cooling ever since it was born out of stars. And the number of variables that are necessary to model it are astoundingly, impossibly large.

From Russia, With Love

Last time I mentioned the Vostok ice core that Russian scientists recovered while drilling in Antartica. It’s very revealing and I’m reproducing it here in a couple of different forms:

Unless you believe Russian scientists are totally incompetent you have to conclude from the data that:

  1. For the past 400,000 years there have been rapid and cyclic rises and falls in the Earth’s temperature, CO2, and methane concentrations. For example, if you look at the data (and not just the graph), there was a 12% increase in global CO2 over 840 years about 269,000 years ago and a 23% increase in CO2 between 14,000 and 18,000 years ago.
  2. The periodicity of these cycles is about 80,000-100,000 years.
  3. The earth’s temperature started the newest cyclic climb about 15,000 years ago – well before the Age of the Automobile.
  4. There’s a strong inverse correlation between atmospheric dust and temperature.

Geology Down Under

This last point is especially intriguing to me.

I just got back from a trip to Australia. While there, I four wheeled through the Yeagarup sand dunes in the Cape D’Entrecasteaux National Park. (On sanctioned trails, of course.)

These spectacular dunes are composed of fine white sand and measure at least 13Km by 3Km in areal extent.

Here’s the best part: they were formed about 12,000 years ago at a time of maximum cooling. The cooling of the earth withdrew ocean waters into the Arctic ice cap, causing sea levels to fall. Ultimately the Australian shelf withdrew about 10 km seaward from its current margin, exposing the sea bed to warm, drying conditions that eventually blew sand onshore and made these dunes.

So even though the dunes’ formation was caused by the exact opposite of global warming, their creation, and the subsequent recapture of the continental shelf by modern oceans, shows that the earth has, in the very recent past, had rapid temperature fluctuations that are in no way related to human industrial activity. Nor were the massive increases in global temperatures that began about 290 million years ago that presaged the great Permian extinction.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. What do you see when you look at this data? Does it make you question the status quo? Or, do you think I’m just an old curmudgeon that needs to get in line? Either way, leave your thoughts below.

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Mark Nibbelink

Mark Nibbelink co-founder of Drillinginfo. He currently works with Universities, Colleges and Consortia to broaden the depth and reach of Drillinginfo’s platform for the students who are the future of the Oil & Gas industry. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Geology and Master of Arts in Geology and Geophysics from Dartmouth College.
  • Tom Dill

    No doubt that climate has changed naturally before, no one disputes that. But what is of concern is the extremely rapid increase in CO2 to extremely high levels. The current level of CO2 (conveniently pointed out by the little red dot and arrow in the top graph) is much higher than during the previous interglacials. And the rate of change, proved by carbon isotopes to be due to fossil fuel consumption, is spectacular. We have increased CO2 from 280 to 380 ppm in less than 150 years (it would plot as a near vertical line on these graphs). So it a reasonable conclusion to expect much more rapid increases in temperature than during the previous inter-glacials. These graphs (and much, much more data in the scientific literature) have me convinced in anthropogenic global warming, and very concerned about climate changes that our society will have to rapidly adapt to.

  • Rich

    I believe the whole ‘global warming’ thing (or ‘climate change’ if you prefer) is pretty straightforward.
    1. Global warming is happening, no question. Quite large variations in the earth’s temperatures have been going on since time zero.
    2. Mankind’s activities MAY be adding to the current warming trend.
    3. There is NOT ONE SHRED of evidence to suggest that anything we do will reverse the natural warming.
    Politicians, of course, don’t want to let a ‘crisis’ (even one that doesn’t exist) go to waste, so they will try to tax us all into oblivion in the pretense of saving the planet. To be followed shortly thereafter by their attempt to repeal the law of gravity.

  • Thomas Coalson

    The use of the word “tribal” in this post is more apropos than most readers may realize. When a society, no matter how “advanced,” reaches a point in time when it would rather be ruled by fear rather than reason and self-inflicted ignorance rather than sound intellect, it has substituted the reasonable order of civilization for the “safety” offered by warlords and witch doctors. These tribal prophets of doom, these Chicken Littles of the 21st Century, are allowed to rule by the propaganda of fear. Which is exactly what “global warming” is: propaganda perpetuated by the fear of death.

    I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree that the planet is currently going through an environmental shift. Just how substantial and permanent that shift might be is a matter of great debate within the scientific community. From all the data available, there is no consensus that this environmental change is a threat to the well-being of the populace of this planet, either immediately or permanently. As a matter of fact, those “scientists” who claim to have proof of their assertions have, more often than not, been roundly denounced by their peers for the shoddy science and lack of scientific foundation of their so-called evidence.

    As Mr. Nibbelink so aptly points out, there is more than enough scientific information (as opposed to political propaganda) that is available to the public for anyone interested enough to get involved in the debate in an informed, educated manner. That, however, would require effort: reading, researching, thought, the weighing of ideas, the discernment of fact from fiction. Unfortunately, in this day of soundbites and attention spans measured in milliseconds, it is no wonder that those of us in the “older generation” are less than sanguine that the younger generations will be able to deal with the real problems that face us, as a country and as a civilization. When a majority of those in this country actually accept “An Inconvenient Truth” as scientific fact, I truly believe that we may have reached the real tipping point: superstitious fear conquering rational intellect. This has occurred before in history; we called it the “Dark Ages.”

    If it is indeed true that the earth is in store for one of its cyclic warming periods, the reasonable approach would be concentrating our scientific efforts on developing the ways and means necessary to sustain life at a level required to continue educational and scientific growth. Clucking that “the sky is falling” will do nothing to resolve some of the very real environmental and economic problems that will likely face us in the near future.

    Believing that forms of “alternative” or “renewable” energy will “save us” is very much like believing in the Tooth Fairy: if you wish for it hard enough, if you believe in it long enough, if you say it out loud, turn three times counterclockwise and spit over your shoulder, you may just be rewarded with something to ameliorate your pain. The fact is that if we were to blanket our country with solar panels and wind farms, wherever there wasn’t a city or a farm, we would still never have enough power to take care of the current demands this country has for power. To think otherwise is comes from the need for a shared belief system that initiates one as one of the elite, a true-believer, a full-fledged member of the tribe. Just as with all belief systems, it is no more and no less a destructive self-delusion.

    The energy resources that it would take to mine, process, mill and manufacture all of the components and support equipment to produce enough solar panels or wind generators would cripple the power needs of this country. Not that it would do any good in the long run. Since none of those “technologies” has a dependable, on-going efficiency of more than 35%, and since these same “technologies” require constant maintenance and periodic replacement, the carbon footprint required to maintain these so-called renewable energies is greater than that of fossil fuels. As noted earlier, to provide enough energy to currently power our country would require more free land surface area than is available.

    I do not argue that we live in a problem-free society. We actually do have environmental issues that we need to deal with. The use of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, is not one of those issues. Frac’ing is not one of those issues. As a matter of fact, the petroleum industry, as a whole, is far less of an impact on the planet than other industries we either under-regulate, or don’t regulate at all. Every year, there is more groundwater contamination that comes from just a few landfills in our country than has ever come from the hundreds of thousands of frac’ing jobs performed since 1949. There is more environmental damage that comes from strip mining and processing gold than has ever occurred from all the oil spills caused by human error combined. Yet these, and other environmental problems, largely get a pass from environmental groups and governmental regulatory agencies.

    We must plan for the day when the hydrocarbons are gone. We must use the resources we have to develop a long-term solution to this planet’s need for a consistent source of power for an ever-growing populace. Rather than wasting money on the Pollyanna notions of solar and wind generation, we should be considering the design and development of large-scale, solar steam generators. We should turn our attention to hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, and extracting it cheaply, efficiently and in large quantities, as a fuel source. As it is now, certain industrial processes generate hydrogen as a by-product, a gas that is going to waste when it could be used for fuel. And while it will probably not happen in my lifetime, cold-fusion is still, in my estimation, a viable possibility. No matter what you may think of power generated by hydrocarbons, one thing is certain: sooner or later they’ll be gone.

    A final word: before you dismiss or criticize what I have posted, please do your homework, as I have. I’ve spent 30 years looking into and studying environmental issues, the hydrocarbon industry and energy generation platforms to know whereof I speak. If you can bring me any credible, peer-reviewed scientific papers that can disprove any of these points, please bring them to my attention. It is quite possible that I’ve missed something, and I am always open to being constructively educated.

    In the meantime, if you actually do have a real interest in the subject of global warming and wish to learn more of the science and less about the political demagoguery, a good book to start with would be “Climate of Extremes,” by Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling, Jr. Following up further with their bibliography should keep you well informed of what the science of meteorology is actually saying on the subject.

    Respectfully yours,

    Tom Coalson

  • Allen Gilmer

    Not sure I can add to the reasoned discussion here. I would like to add a couple of facts. The flattening of temperatures over the last 15 years were completely unpredicted by the models resulting in Kyoto. When models aren’t predictive, they serve little purpose.

    Secondly, I find it odd that we aren’e hearing about the BENEFITS of a warming planet. A warming planet has, in geological history, been shown to FAVOR biodiversity rather than impede it, basically because life has much more access to free carbon, the basic building blocks. Given that we are the appex of the current curve, this is the MOST hospitable our planet has ever been. Humanity, as in Homo Sapiens, has only known a warming upswing. Short term ice ages are the times of scarcity, pestilence, famine, and major societal reformation. Given where we are on the curve, why are we not worried about THAT?
    The more we know about our planet, the more we understand that our processes on every scale are more sudden and less gradual. Our species depends on adapting to environments rather than trying to control environments, which seems a fools game on the order of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy ridiculous.

  • http://www.mhnederlof.nl Dr M.H.Nederlof

    In your discussion, mentioning the Vostok and other ice cores, I missed the significant time lag of several hundred years, temperature being first to rise, then CO2.
    This a significant embarrasment to the greenhouse model.
    Also in de comments, emphasis is given to the recent “unprecedented” rise (speed) in CO2 and temperature. However the ice cores average time intervals of several hunderd years, because of resolution problems. Statistically this means that the sudden increases/decreases are hidden. Other data (see http://www.woodfortrees) state that such sudden changes have occurred in the past.
    My overall conclusion after a lot of data analysis is that the human induced effects on climate do exist, but that the models tend to seriously overestimate the human contribution.

  • http://www.welltestspecialists.com David Leech

    Racoons in Medicine Hat, Pronghorn north of Red Deer, Mule Deer in the Yukon, Polar Bears mating with Grizzly Bears (again Ursus horribilus whatever)… Everything will adapt, as it always has. Just imagine us humans trying to manage invasion of the grasslands after retreat of the glaciers. LOL.

    Our winters have never been better – there’s even a winery in Lillooet! We are looking forward to an even warmer future. We still have many, many cultural and environmental problems to solve though, for which the climate change debate simply detracts…

  • http://jessetufts.wordpress.com/the-big-picture/ Jesse

    I’m not sure I see the point of these arguments really. It’s pretty funny, you can tell the people who are scared of change, the people who refuse to take their blinders off and look at the big picture. Whether we like it or not fossil fuels of all types will eventually run out or become so expensive or environmentally irresponsible to extract that they will be impractical! There is no point in denying this, it’s a fact, they are non-renewable resources. This will necessitate a switch to a zero carbon economy and whether the deniers like it or not we will all be forced to switch to big bad renewable energy. There are so many other problems (environmental, social, political, health, you name it) associated with the use of fossil fuels that even if you don’t “believe in climate change” you should still recognize all the other benefits of switching to renewable energy and embrace those.

    And Mr. Coalson (appropriate name by the way), it is entirely possible to put enough solar panels on my house in Edmonton to cover all of my energy needs for my home and my transportation (I drive an electric car). There are lots of good examples of net zero houses here in Edmonton of all places and most areas of the world with less heating needs can easily produce a surplus using just rooftop solar. The land area of solar panels required to provide all the world’s energy needs is much less than the land area of Alberta, for the entire world! This is simple math, it’s not hard to figure out. The energy required to build those panels is paid back in less than two years, after that it’s free energy for the 50 year life of the panels. And why are you afraid of this technology?

    The great thing is that it will only be a couple years before solar is cheaper than fossil fuels for energy production, and then somehow these arguments against renewables will magically disappear!

  • brad parkes

    You should be ashamed to drive a coal powered car that contains a noxious battery.

    • brad parkes

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19830232

      The team looked at the life-cycle impact of conventional and electric vehicles.

      In essence, they considered how the production, the use and the end-of-life dismantling of a car affects the environment, explained co-author Prof Anders Hammer Stromman.

      “The production phase of electric vehicles proved substantially more environmentally intensive,” the report said, comparing it to how petrol and diesel cars are made.

      “The global warming potential from electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles.”

      In addition, producing batteries and electric motors requires a lot of toxic minerals such as nickel, copper and aluminium.

      Hence, the acidification impact is much greater than that of conventional car production.

      “Across the other impacts considered in the analysis including potential for effects related to acid rain, airborne particulate matter, smog, human toxicity, ecosystem toxicity and depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources, electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation,” according to Prof Stromman.

      • brad parkes

        The Sundance power plant is the largest coal-fired electrical generating facility in western Canada, with six generating units. The plant is located 70 kilometers west of Edmonton, Alberta on the south shore of Wabamun Lake.

        http://www.transalta.com/facilities/plants-operation/sundance

        • brad parkes

          Jesse your electric car is doing more harm than my gasoline powered car.

          10 years from now we will have an acid battery leakage problem from electric cars.

          • Jesse

            Wow, hostile, I must have touched a nerve… funny you must not have read the entire article which also talked about the benefits of EVs.

            I’m definitely not ashamed, actually, I’ve run all the numbers and my EV, even running on dirty Alberta coal is still cleaner than it would have been as a gas vehicle. It produces about 15% less CO2 as well as less particulate matter and smog forming emissions along with no waste oil from oil changes. Obviously you’re right on some points though, if I drive it on Alberta coal the benefits are not that large, but the thing with electric cars is that they can get their electricity from anywhere, for example, a green power subscription (like this one runs on about half the time) rooftop solar panels, a wind turbine etc. Your gas car will always require fossil fuels to run. And jokes on you, your gas car costs about 10 times as much per km to operate compared to my EV!

            Also, the lithium iron phosphate batteries in my EV are non-toxic and contain no dangerous heavy metals or acids, so there is little danger of any acid leakage.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_iron_phosphate_battery

          • brad parkes

            The government have said previously that an average car produces around 208g of CO2 per kilometre travelled (referenced from ecometrica report above). Comparing this figure to that of the electric car above, we can work out how far you’d have to drive in a brand new electric car to offset the emissions that are due to its manufacture.

            To give an even more comprehensive comparison, the table below shows those same figures for a Toyota Prius petrol-electric hybrid and a 2006 Ford Focus 1.6i (the Focus has been on of the most bought cars every year for a decade). I have used the more conservative figure of 8.8 tonnes of CO2 emitted from the manufacture of an electric car.

            Car Model gCO2/km gCO2/km Vs. Electric km per tonne saving km to offset manufacture (8.8 tonnes CO2)
            Average Car 208 +133 7518.8 66165
            Toyota Prius 89 +14 71428.5 628571
            Ford Focus 163 +88 11363.6 100000
            So you can see that if you swapped an average car for an electric car, you’d have to drive it for 66,165km before you were doing right by the environment. With a Ford Focus the figure is roughly 100,000km while swapping a Toyota Prius for a full electric car is obviously a bad idea as you’d have to drive for over 600,00km to account for the additional production emissions.

          • brad parkes

            Jesse where does the lithium and phosphate come from?

            Lithium mining is some of the most water intensive mining in the world. Phosphates are running low. Did you include this in your calculation?

            It sounds like you are using more metals and elements than would be consumed in a gas powered engine.

            http://www.cnbc.com/id/100359287/The_New_Way_to_Tax_Pay_Per_Mile_Driven

            When this tax spreads, there will be no cost differential.

          • brad parkes

            Sorry you took that as hostile. I guess I’m curt in responses. There were no nerves touched, I just personally believe you are making the mistake Bastiat referred to counting “that which is seen and (ignoring) that which is not seen”.

            It would be foolish for anyone to state that as humanity progresses the worlds energy sources will change. Yes I believe there are benefits to EV cars and diversified energy supplied. I just do not believe we are there yet.

            Energy loss in solar PV cell transmission is currently high and not suitable for large scale use, yet. I do believe your comment on powering your own home IS TRUE and believe that is a good strategy.

            One question I have for EV vehicles…the people still with out power after Hurricane Sandy, how are they charging their vehicles? In the Quebec Ice Storm of 1997 how would have emergency vehicles have reacted to a week with out power?

            So yes, some day tidal kinetic energy, geothermal or algae biomass may replace hydrocarbons. But currently most EV cars just switch the emissions to someone else.

            It’s similar to hearing Leo DiCaprio say he plans to fly around the world to do good for the environment while ignoring the CO2 emissions his private jet emits.

          • Jesse

            Moving up from the bottom comment first…
            Well considering gas pumps require electricity to run as well I don’t see how they would be any better off. In fact if you have solar panels on your house you can be completely independent from both power outages and gas pumps. This is my future plan, not that I’m worried about power outages, within a couple years it will just make economic sense!

            Energy loss in the transmission of solar electricity is exactly the same as that from any source. Electricity behaves the same no matter where it comes from. It makes sense to have solar in small installations at the point of use because you don’t have any transmission losses like you would with any centralized power station and it’s really not any less efficient in small scale as the panels are generally in reasonably small modules anyways.

            The resources used in the manufacturing of any car are much less than those burned up in it’s operation as you point out in your example, making energy efficiency during use more important than energy to manufacture. Plus these batteries are fully recyclable at end of life just like most metals and plastics now.

            Now consider this, the best selling vehicles in Canada have been ford pickups for quite a while now, which are much less efficient than a focus and are primarily used for single passenger transportation. My EV is a 1992 Japanese mini truck that I bought used, it’s motor was bad and was essentially at the end of it’s life, so I converted it to EV, recycling a vehicle instead of buying a new one. On alberta electricity it uses 105g CO2/km, but on BC hydro power it uses a tiny fraction of that. As a small truck it’s just as useful to me as a F150 would be but uses only a fraction of the energy. I realize it’s not for everyone but it certainly works for me, it makes both economic and environmental sense no matter how you put it.