Guest Opinion: Dr. Tim Ball
Release of early data from NASA’s OCO2 satellite triggered the typical nonsense. The usual people talked about the modern equivalent of how many angels on the head of a pin, when they haven’t even established the existence of angels. The initial OCO2 data appears to show most estimates and assumptions were wrong. This might explain NASA’s hesitancy to release all the information, especially with regard to sources and sinks. If nothing else, the maps show the CO2 is not well mixed. The wider truth is that every piece of data in the climate debate is a very crude estimate created for a political or scientific agenda, including those used by many skeptics.
Kip Hansen’s essay “Are we Chasing Imaginary Numbers?” speaks to an important point about approximations. It reminded me about learning navigation and taking what was called “a three star fix”. The result almost always was a triangulation and all you knew was you were somewhere in the triangle. To narrow it down, but still not be precise, you dropped perpendicular lines from the centre of each side of the triangle to create what Hansen would recognize as the data point, we called it a Most Probable Position (MPP). Hansen’s discussion is very valuable, but in climate science the problem begins long before the point of determining accuracy.
All measurement records are inadequate for any legitimate analysis, lacking length, breadth, or depth. For example, Spectrum Analysis is used to determine climate cycles, but requires long records which are rarely available. The overall records are inadequate as the basis for modeling or even input to formulae; they definitely should not underpin any policy.
In typical IPCC fashion they acknowledge most of the problems in Box 2.1 Uncertainty in Observational Records. It appears in the Physical Science Basis Report where they know it won’t be read, It should be the first page of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM), but don’t hold your CO2 laden breath. Despite these inadequacies, unnecessary policies and attacks on entire segments of society occurred. Usually this occurs insidiously and without wider knowledge, primarily because of the abject failure of the mainstream media.
I have given evidence about climate and environment at trials and served on dozens of commissions of inquiry. In every case the primary finding was the same; data was inadequate to draw any conclusion. The problem is exacerbated because authorities limit and control what data is made available. Unfortunately, while this would stop pure scientific research, it doesn’t hinder political scientific research. The data problem in climate research has not improved in the 43 years since Hubert Lamb set up the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in 1972. He explained the challenge in his autobiography.
“…it was clear that the first and greatest need was to establish the facts of the past record of the natural climate in times before any side effects of human activities could well be important.”
Lamb’s central interest was in reconstructing climate records, but his concern about inadequacies applies to all related data. He also commented on what would happen when all the efforts went to speculation without adequate data.
A precarious and threatening situation has developed for climatology: a tremendous effort was made to land research funds in all countries, mostly the USA, on the basis of frightening people about the possible drastic affects of Man’s activities, and so much has been said about climate warming there will be an awkward situation if the warming doesn’t happen or not to the extent predicted.
The IPCC successfully directed most attention, including that of most skeptics, to temperature and CO2. They were wrong on both these variables, but were equally wrong on most others. One error was their data and predictions about methane (CH4). Misuse of methane data began even before the IPCC hit full stride with attacks on the agriculture sector and cause serious and totally unnecessary economic and social damage (Figure 1).
Failed IPCC predictions like these are obvious and not surprising. More intriguing is the increase in observed methane levels after 2004, but more of that later.
On The Front Line
After 40 years working with farmers and landowners I know they are more aware and environmentally conscious than anyone else in society. They and their families live on and make their living from the land; it is an investment and a legacy. Farmers were attacked in the 1970s and 80s with claims their cattle produced methane (CH4) that caused global warming. It was incorrect scientifically and ignored facts that provided a different picture. It combined with attacks on their entire operation by animal rights groups that were aggravated by the severe drought across western North America in the late 1980s. Waterfowl numbers declined and farmers were blamed because they cleared the woodlands, drained the wetlands, and using chemicals. I spoke to a farm conference in Yorkton Saskatchewan during that period. A farmer spoke to me in the parking lot after. He said they no longer had family suppers because of dissent and hostility as his children, indoctrinated by a misinformed social studies teacher with a political agenda, attacked him and farming. The numbers of waterfowl recovered in the early 1990s when rains returned, but there were no apologies.
When the methane issue appeared I was serving as a technical advisor for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). I urged them to ignore the issue because scientific evidence didn’t justify the claims but that didn’t matter; the eco-bullying was effective. Some governments, like New Zealand, actually planned taxes on animal emissions of methane. The government eventually withdrew the tax after farmers protested loudly about the damage to the economy. In Canada the government offered sizable sums of money to farmers who adopted their methane reduction programs. I learned, while speaking to the Canadian Forage Crop producers a few years ago, that many signed on. They quickly found how disastrous it was because bureaucrats dictated their farm management, including inappropriately changing their crop rotation.
What happened to the methane issue? How was a very important part of society threatened and made to feel guilty for what humans and animals have done for millions of years, produce methane? The answer is special interest environmental groups used inadequate data and scientific knowledge to create a false narrative. The mainstream media amplified the threats in their furtherance of sensationalism. The worst part was most scientists remained silent. There was another scientist on the CCA panel with me who urged action. It later emerged that he was receiving research funds to produce methods of reducing methane from animals.
North American cattlemen went from the personification of freedom and healthy lifestyle represented by the Marlboro Man, to the actor who played the Marlboro Man sadly dying of cancer and the great outdoors polluted by the cattle in his herd.
T.H. Huxley said, “The great tragedy of Science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” It certainly applies to the hypothesis that human activities are causing increases in greenhouse gases, such as CH4, that are destroying the planet. The trouble was atmospheric methane volumes leveled and declined at the same time as the charges were made. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report shows the trend (Figure 2).
The IPCC (Table 1) showed that atmospheric methane (CH4) levels did not change as a forcing factor between 1998 and 2005.
|Concentrations and their changes||
|Speciesa||2005||Change since 1998||2005 (W m–2)||Change since1998 (%)|
|CO2||379 ± 0.65 ppm||+13 ppm||1.66||+13|
|CH4||1,774 ± 1.8 ppb||+11 ppb||0.48||–|
|N2O||319 ± 0.12 ppb||+5 ppb||0.16||+11|
Over the period from 1990 – 2013, which includes the period in Table 1, US methane levels declined (Figure 3).
The same EPA web page says,
Globally, over 60% of total CH4 emissions come from human activities.
They don’t know that, but it maintains the false narrative. The question is what do we know?
Methane is 0.00017% of all atmospheric gases and only 0.36% of the total greenhouse gases. These fractions were so small that even people who didn’t understand the science became skeptical of the claims that it was doing harm. This is when the concept of climate sensitivity appeared except it was called the Global Warming Potential (GWP). The story was that methane was a small percentage of the greenhouse gases, but much more effective than CO2 or H2O. It is a meaningless measure because
“The infrared absorption bands of methane, at wavelengths of roughly 3 and 8 microns, are overlain by absorption from water vapor. But once the water vapor absorbs the radiation in these bands, there is really nothing left for methane to absorb. So the estimates of methane being 20-70 times more effective per molecule than CO2 (as estimated by IPCC), or that methane forcing is 20% of CO2 forcing, as shown in various IPCC reports, makes absolutely no sense.”
Great variation in the GWP figure is evidence that it is artificial nonsense. EPA currently says it is over 20 times more effective than CO2.
Regardless, its lack of importance was clarified when, Andrew Weaver, contributor to four IPCC Reports (1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013) said,
“[Methane] was not considered in any of the predictions at all.”
[Disclaimer, Andrew Weaver has a defamation lawsuit against me]
Many facts about methane show why the story was distorted. In the 1970s and 80s farmers were already under attack from animal rights groups. The global warming due to greenhouse gases appeared and provided a bigger vehicle for their agenda. Global warming dominated the headlines pushing the theme that humans and their animals were a blight on the landscape.
Methane levels were not increasing, but that didn’t matter. Once government funding became available academics emerged to perpetuate the myth, not to report the truth. The central objective was to blame any change on human activity. An early story blamed Imperialist promotion of bush clearing for agriculture in Africa (Figure 4).
Figure 4; Termite mounds on the Savanna in Africa .
They claimed cleared land increased termite numbers and thereby methane amounts. This fell apart when someone discovered a calculation error that overestimated the numbers by a factor of four. Then the target became more Beaver and methane producing flooded land because of decreased trapping (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Beaver dam and increased flooding.
When ground checked, the numbers and area proved insignificant.
Cattle became the next target, but only North American cows. Jeremy Rifkin’s “Beyond Beef” was a book and global campaign that combined the animal rights and climate issue. The activists’ goal is to convince politicians of the problem. Once that happens it is virtually unstoppable as bureaucrats and research money (Figure 6) exaggerate, elaborate, and exacerbate so the truth never emerges.
Figure 6: Milking money because 85% of methane comes from the cow’s mouth.
A balanced approach would include all ruminants and changes in their numbers over time. For example, there is no question the number of cows in North America increased from the 1850s from approximately 120,000 to 86 million by the 1980s. However, during that time North American Bison (Buffalo, Figure 7) decreased from an estimated 65 million to 120,000 by the 1980s.
Figure 7: North American Bison methane producer.
They ignored the decrease in the number of elephants (Figure 8) from an estimated 25 million to 5 million.
Figure 8: African elephants
All these decreases are regrettable, but that is another issue. Unemotional facts are necessary for scientific measures of methane production.
There was a political bias as well because they didn’t mention the 250 million sacred cows in India (Figure 9).
Figure 9: Holy cows that produce no foodstuff.
It appears they ignored the Holy cows and Asian rice paddies, the second largest source of human produced methane, because of political bias (Figure 10). Science must be amoral and apolitical otherwise it is political science.
Figure 10: Asian Rice Paddies
If you make accusations and demand massive change it is mandatory to have as complete information as possible. This is never the case with eco-bullying. Instead they look for other potential sources created by human activity.
Recently, as the CO2 and global warming issues faltered they went back to methane. This time the source was melting permafrost due to human induced warming creating a positive feedback. Russian scientists are world experts because much of their vast country is permafrost. One of them, Michali Grigoryev, states categorically, the permafrost is not melting due to global warming.
Other evidence shows how little is known about methane. Scientists discovered in 2006 that rain forests were a major, previously uncounted, source of methane, not just from the rotting vegetation. Here is a quote from a 2006 BBC article,
To their amazement, the scientists found that all the textbooks written on the biochemistry of plants had apparently overlooked the fact that methane is produced by a range of plants even when there is plenty of oxygen.
The amount of the gas produced increased when the air was warmer, and when there was more sunlight. The paper estimates that this unexplained phenomenon could account for 10 – 30% of the world’s methane emissions.
The discovery caused a panic in climate science and affiliated circles as it potentially undermined their global warming stories and associated funding. Scientists who made the discovery, suddenly realized what their research said and back-pedaled. Apparently it triggered fears their funding would disappear because it undermined global warming and remediation claims. Here are comments from a 2006 article titled “Forest methane scientists hose down media reports.”
The authors of a study which revealed for the first time that growing plants emit the greenhouse gas methane now say their work has been widely misinterpreted by many in the media.
The results of the study, which were published in the January 12 edition of Nature, led some commentators to incorrectly conclude that planting trees to combat global warming was a waste of time.
The Kyoto Protocol encourages forest planting because growing trees capture the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere and ‘lock it up’ in plant material. In a media statement posted last week on the website of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, principal author Max Keppler says the study findings are only “preliminary”.
But he estimates that methane emissions by plants may reduce their carbon uptake by up to 4 percent. The climatic benefits gained from reforestation far exceed this relatively small negative effect, he says. “The potential for reduction of global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive.”
They show their ignorance with the incorrect information that carbon dioxide is the “main greenhouse gas” by saying,
Methane has the second greatest effect on the climate, mainly due to rice cultivation and the digestive processes of ruminants like cattle and sheep.
Was this the information that caused the increase in methane shown in Figure 1? How can you claim to know what is going on when suddenly, a previously unknown 10-30% of methane emissions are discovered?
Arthur Conan Doyle created the character of Sherlock Holmes. Although he was fictional, Sherlock’s methodology dramatically altered real criminal investigative work. The following quote was central to that method and summarizes what goes on in climate and environmental science.
I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
With environmental issues this twisting of facts results in unmeasured and untold damage to people’s lives. Sadly, the methane and agricultural story is just one of many.