Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
There seem to be a host of people out there who want to discuss whether humanoids are responsible for the post ~1850 rise in the amount of CO2. People seem madly passionate about this question. So I figure I’ll deal with it by employing the method I used in the 1960s to fire off dynamite shots when I was in the road-building game … light the fuse, and run like hell …
First, the data, as far as it is known. What we have to play with are several lines of evidence, some of which are solid, and some not so solid. These break into three groups: data about the atmospheric levels, data about the emissions, and data about the isotopes.
The most solid of the atmospheric data, as we have been discussing, is the Mauna Loa CO2 data. This in turn is well supported by the ice core data. Here’s what they look like for the last thousand years:
Figure 1. Mauna Loa CO2 data (orange circles), and CO2 data from 8 separate ice cores. Fuji ice core data is analyzed by two methods (wet and dry). Siple ice core data is analyzed by two different groups (Friedli et al., and Neftel et al.). You can see why Michael Mann is madly desirous of establishing the temperature hockeystick … otherwise, he has to explain the Medieval Warm Period without recourse to CO2. Photo shows the outside of the WAIS ice core drilling shed.
So here’s the battle plan:
I’m going to lay out and discuss the data and the major issues as I understand them, and tell you what I think. Then y’all can pick it all apart. Let me preface this by saying that I do think that the recent increase in CO2 levels is due to human activities.
Issue 1. The shape of the historical record.
I will start with Figure 1. As you can see, there is excellent agreement between the eight different ice cores, including the different methods and different analysts for two of the cores. There is also excellent agreement between the ice cores and the Mauna Loa data. Perhaps the agreement is coincidence. Perhaps it is conspiracy. Perhaps it is simple error. Me, I think it represents a good estimate of the historical background CO2 record.
So if you are going to believe that this is not a result of human activities, it would help to answer the question of what else might have that effect. It is not necessary to provide an alternative hypothesis if you disbelieve that humans are the cause … but it would help your case. Me, I can’t think of any obvious other explanation for that precipitous recent rise.
Issue 2. Emissions versus Atmospheric Levels and Sequestration
There are a couple of datasets that give us amounts of CO2 emissions from human activities. The first is the CDIAC emissions dataset. This gives the annual emissions (as tonnes of carbon, not CO2) separately for fossil fuel gas, liquids, and solids. It also gives the amounts for cement production and gas flaring.
The second dataset is much less accurate. It is an estimate of the emissions from changes in land use and land cover, or “LU/LC” as it is known … what is a science if it doesn’t have acronyms? The most comprehensive dataset I’ve found for this is the Houghton dataset. Here are the emissions as shown by those two datasets:
Figure 2. Anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture (blue line), land use/land cover (LU/LC) changes (white line), and the total of the two (red line).
While this is informative, and looks somewhat like the change in atmospheric CO2, we need something to compare the two directly. The magic number to do this is the number of gigatonnes (billions of tonnes, 1 * 10^9) of carbon that it takes to change the atmospheric CO2 concentration by 1 ppmv. This turns out to be 2.13 gigatonnes of carbon (C) per 1 ppmv.
Using that relationship, we can compare emissions and atmospheric CO2 directly. Figure 3 looks at the cumulative emissions since 1850, along with the atmospheric changes (converted from ppmv to gigatonnes C). When we do so, we see an interesting relationship. Not all of the emitted CO2 ends up in the atmosphere. Some is sequestered (absorbed) by the natural systems of the earth.
Figure 3. Total emissions (fossil, cement, & LU/LC), amount remaining in the atmosphere, and amount sequestered.
Here we see that not all of the carbon that is emitted (in the form of CO2) remains in the atmosphere. Some is absorbed by some combination of the ocean, the biosphere, and the land. How are we to understand this?
To do so, we need to consider a couple of often conflated measurements. One is the residence time of CO2. This is the amount of time that the average CO2 molecule stays in the atmosphere. It can be calculated in a couple of ways, and is likely about 6–8 years.
The other measure, often confused with the first, is the half-life, or alternately the e-folding time of CO2. Suppose we put a pulse of CO2 into an atmospheric system which is at some kind of equilibrium. The pulse will slowly decay, and after a certain time, the system will return to equilibrium. This is called “exponential decay”, since a certain percentage of the excess is removed each year. The strength of the exponential decay is usually measured as the amount of time it takes for the pulse to decay to half its original value (half-life) or to 1/e (0.37) of its original value (e-folding time). The length of this decay (half-life or e-folding time) is much more difficult to calculate than the residence time. The IPCC says it is somewhere between 90 and 200 years. I say it is much less, as does Jacobson.
Now, how can we determine if it is actually the case that we are looking at exponential decay of the added CO2? One way is to compare it to what a calculated exponential decay would look like. Here’s the result, using an e-folding time of 31 years:
Figure 4. Total cumulative emissions (fossil, cement, & LU/LC), cumulative amount remaining in the atmosphere, and cumulative amount sequestered. Calculated sequestered amount (yellow line) and calculated airborne amount (black) are shown as well.
As you can see, the assumption of exponential decay fits the observed data quite well, supporting the idea that the excess atmospheric carbon is indeed from human activities.
Issue 3. 12C and 13C carbon isotopes
Carbon has a couple of natural isotopes, 12C and 13C. 12C is lighter than 13C. Plants preferentially use the lighter isotope (12C). As a result, plant derived materials (including fossil fuels) have a lower amount of 13C with respect to 12C (a lower 13C/12C ratio).
It is claimed (I have not looked very deeply into this) that since about 1850 the amount of 12C in the atmosphere has been increasing. There are several lines of evidence for this: 13C/12C ratios in tree rings, 13C/12C ratios in the ocean, and 13C/12C ratios in sponges. Together, they suggest that the cause of the post 1850 CO2 rise is fossil fuel burning.
However, there are problems with this. For example, here is a Nature article called “Problems in interpreting tree-ring δ 13C records”. The abstract says (emphasis mine):
THE stable carbon isotopic (13C/12C) record of twentieth-century tree rings has been examined1-3 for evidence of the effects of the input of isotopically lighter fossil fuel CO2 (δ 13C~-25‰ relative to the primary PDB standard4), since the onset of major fossil fuel combustion during the mid-nineteenth century, on the 13C/12C ratio of atmospheric CO2(δ 13C~-7‰), which is assimilated by trees by photosynthesis. The decline in δ13C up to 1930 observed in several series of tree-ring measurements has exceeded that anticipated from the input of fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere, leading to suggestions of an additional input ‰) during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Stuiver has suggested that a lowering of atmospheric δ 13C of 0.7‰, from 1860 to 1930 over and above that due to fossil fuel CO2 can be attributed to a net biospheric CO2 (δ 13C~-25‰) release comparable, in fact, to the total fossil fuel CO2 flux from 1850 to 1970. If information about the role of the biosphere as a source of or a sink for CO2 in the recent past can be derived from tree-ring 13C/12C data it could prove useful in evaluating the response of the whole dynamic carbon cycle to increasing input of fossil fuel CO2 and thus in predicting potential climatic change through the greenhouse effect of resultant atmospheric CO2 concentrations. I report here the trend (Fig. 1a) in whole wood δ 13C from 1883 to 1968 for tree rings of an American elm, grown in a non-forest environment at sea level in Falmouth, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (41°34’N, 70°38’W) on the northeastern coast of the US. Examination of the δ 13C trends in the light of various potential influences demonstrates the difficulty of attributing fluctuations in 13C/12C ratios to a unique cause and suggests that comparison of pre-1850 ratios with temperature records could aid resolution of perturbatory parameters in the twentieth century.
This isotopic line of argument seems like the weakest one to me. The total flux of carbon through the atmosphere is about 211 gigtonnes plus the human contribution. This means that the human contribution to the atmospheric flux ranged from ~2.7% in 1978 to 4% in 2008. During that time, the average of the 11 NOAA measuring stations value for the 13C/12C ratio decreased by -0.7 per mil.
Now, the atmosphere has ~ -7 per mil 13C/12C. Given that, for the amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere to cause a 0.7 mil drop, the added CO2 would need to have had a 13C/12C of around -60 per mil.
But fossil fuels in the current mix have a 13C/12C ration of ~ -28 per mil, only about half of that requried to make such a change. So it is clear that the fossil fuel burning is not the sole cause of the change in the atmospheric 13C/12C ratio. Note that this is the same finding as in the Nature article.
In addition, from an examination of the year-by-year changes it is obvious that there are other large scale effects on the global 13C/12C ratio. From 1984 to 1986, it increased by 0.03 per mil. From ’86 to ’89, it decreased by -0.2. And from ’89 to ’92, it didn’t change at all. Why?
However, at least the sign of the change in atmospheric 13C/12C ratio (decreasing) is in agreement with with theory that at least part of it is from anthropogenic CO2 production from fossil fuel burning.
As I said, I think that the preponderance of evidence shows that humans are the main cause of the increase in atmospheric CO2. It is unlikely that the change in CO2 is from the overall temperature increase. During the ice age to interglacial transitions, on average a change of 7°C led to a doubling of CO2. We have seen about a tenth of that change (0.7°C) since 1850, so we’d expect a CO2 change from temperature alone of only about 20 ppmv.
Given all of the issues discussed above, I say humans are responsible for the change in atmospheric CO2 … but obviously, for lots of people, YMMV. Also, please be aware that I don’t think that the change in CO2 will make any meaningful difference to the temperature, for reasons that I explain here.
So having taken a look at the data, we have finally arrived at …
RULES FOR THE DISCUSSION OF ATTRIBUTION OF THE CO2 RISE
1. Numbers trump assertions. If you don’t provide numbers, you won’t get much traction.
2. Ad hominems are meaningless. Saying that some scientist is funded by big oil, or is a member of Greenpeace, or is a geologist rather than an atmospheric physicist, is meaningless. What is important is whether what they say is true or not. Focus on the claims and their veracity, not on the sources of the claims. Sources mean nothing.
3. Appeals to authority are equally meaningless. Who cares what the 12-member Board of the National Academy of Sciences says? Science isn’t run by a vote … thank goodness.
4. Make your cites specific. “The IPCC says …” is useless. “Chapter 7 of the IPCC AR4 says …” is useless. Cite us chapter and verse, specify page and paragraph. I don’t want to have to dig through an entire paper or an IPCC chapter to guess at which one line you are talking about.
5. QUOTE WHAT YOU DISAGREE WITH!!! I can’t stress this enough. Far too often, people attack something that another person hasn’t said. Quote their words, the exact words you think are mistaken, so we can all see if you have understood what they are saying.
6. NO PERSONAL ATTACKS!!! Repeat after me. No personal attacks. No “only a fool would believe …”. No “Are you crazy?”. No speculation about a person’s motives. No “deniers”, no “warmists”, no “econazis”, none of the above. Play nice.
OK, countdown to mayhem in 3, 2, 1 … I’m outta here.