January 11, 2005

Doomsday cancelled? I say 2 F in 25 years.

Between Christmas and New Year we were taking Fredrik to the aquarium outside of Copenhagen-- it combines two of his great loves in life, fish and diving (I tried unsuccessfully to talk him into the science museum). On the train, Karin pointed out a column in the newspaper, 'Doomsday Cancelled.' It said how the threat of global warming had been called off, and as evidence it cited Michael Crichton's recent book State of Fear. I went out and bought the book and have read about half of it now. I was hoping for something new and am reading the book with an open mind. Unfortunately, so far, I have only found the same collection of innuendo, misrepresentation and cherry picking of facts that was discussed and disproved many years ago. Crichton is a bright guy, he writes good books, so how can he have gotten so far off track? What I would like to do is go to one of these electronic markets for ideas and place a bet regarding the future state of the earth's climate. The bet would be something like the following. The annual average temperature of the interior of N. America will increase by at least 2 F (1.1 C) over the next 25 years relative to the 1990s. I think that's a safe bet given past trends in climate and climate forecasts. Some examples-- the global average temperature has increased by 1 F over the last 100 years, and the temperature of Alaska has increased by 3 F over the last 30 years (the predicted and observed temperature changes due to anthropogenic climate forcing are larger at the poles than at the equator). More facts regarding global warming can be found at www.ipcc.ch, and a good commentary on the climate change debate at http://realclimate.org/. Thanks Tim McGuire for the realclimate tip.

Why doesn't business take climate change seriously? Well, some businesses do, for example Ford and British Petroleum. But one problem is that greenhouse gases give what experts like to call a 'long burn' ;-). Greenhouse gases persist in the atmosphere for decades to centuries, depending on the gas, meaning that the temperature changes are slow and relentless seen over a single human generation. Businesses must plan for the short term. The reason is that a dollar in the hand now is worth a lot more than a promise of a dollar in the future. Economists call the number involved the 'discount rate' and a good estimate of its value is 13 %, based on an analysis of T-bills and the S & P 500 from 1926 to 1997 (this thanks to Tim Wallington of Ford Motor Co.) So, a promise to pay a dollar in 20 years is worth about 9 cents today. The discount rate arises from factors like bankruptcy, war, comets, real estate bubbles, inflation, and so on. From a financial perspective it makes no sense for businesses to pay attention to things over time scales longer than 5 to 10 years. From a human perspective it makes a lot of sense.


At January 11, 2005 3:20 PM , Blogger Mike (From Tim's Blog) said...

From a re-election perspective, it also makes no sense for a politician to pay attention to things with time scales longer than 2-6 years.

The New York Times was not fond of Mr. Crichton's book:


At January 12, 2005 5:39 AM , Blogger Tim said...

The companies know something is going on because the car companies moved their cold-weather testing stations out of Minnesota because it wasn't getting cold enough. Or so I heard. I can't find any documentation of this.

At January 12, 2005 9:07 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

In So. Sweden we're having the warmest January in 146 years.

At January 13, 2005 6:31 AM , Blogger Brad said...

Would you bet the same money that global warming is caused by human activity?

also, would you further wager that the consequences are catastrophic?

I don't know what politicians and activists really believe, but among the average educated people I know, the three questions are seperate and most people believe strongly that global warming is occuring, but are less certain of the other two.

At January 13, 2005 9:58 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Hey Brad, I can't speak for politicians or activists. Don't know any to speak of. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) collects scientist from around the world to write reports on the state of our knowledge of climate change. They do not advocate, recommend or proscribe, the only goal is to check the science thoroughly and summarize it for lay-people and policy-makers. The best answer I can give to the question of 'is it anthropogenic' is to refer you to figure 3 of the Summary for Policymankers, a 20-page pdf document you can download from www.ipcc.ch. (Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, click on 'SPM'). According to this, the largest known component of radiative forcing is the anthropogenic greenhouse gases. There are also anthropogenic cooling forces-- note the effect of aerosols. The cooling effect of aerosols (e.g. sulfate coming from sulfer found in coal and oil) is responsible in part for the plateau in the temperature record from WWII to the early 1970s. I know researchers working on all of the areas covered in Figure 3. e.g. next Monday we will have a seminar on the effects of aviation on climate, and I have a PhD student doing nothing but study the effect of the sun on climate via cloud cover.
As far as 'catastrophe', please define. Some documented examples so far are that there has been a 2 to 4 % increase in heavy precipitation events at mid to high latitudes in the last half of the 20th century. The enhanced El Nino caused by climate change has been catastrophic for fishermen. The frequency and intensity of droughts in Asia and Africa have increased. I know a lot of geophysicists who are involved in the Greenland ice core project (Greenland is Danish). They have found many examples of rapid climate change in the past-- ocean circulation changing over the course of 20 years for example, which would be a catastrophe here, since our climate depends on the Labrador current. So, the evidence is that these kinds of things have happened in the past.
The experts agree that climate involves important natural and anthropogenic components.

At January 21, 2005 11:29 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Here is part of a review of Chrichton's book that appeared yesterday in Nature (the world's leading science journal):

'It is a sad indictment of the image of modern science that many readers will find the thesis of the book entirely plausible...'

'For science to recover its standing in the world, we must stand up to the pseudo democratic vogue for treating everyone regardless of expertise as just another stakeholder. No science is infallible, but there is good science and there is bad science, and it is not just a matter of opinion which is which.'

'A hallmark of good science must be the way it treats uncertainty. The IPCC said in 2001 that there is up to a one in three chance that the warming obeserved over the twentieth century might be 'entirely natural in origin'. If Chrichton and Lomborg were equally frank about the chances of their basic premises turning out to be wrong, their scientific views would be a lot more credible.'


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