Opinion by Andy May
Al Gore wrote in the Huffington Post (August 28, 2014) that the need for “bold action” to curtail “old dirty sources of energy … is obvious and urgent.” The proper scientific response to an assertion like that is why? How can I test this idea? Science is not a belief, it is a method of testing ideas. We use an idea to make predictions and then we gather data to see if the predictions are correct. If the predictions are accurate, the idea survives. If any of the predictions fail, the idea is disproven, and it must be modified or simply rejected.
Mr. Gore makes predictions that can be tested. He claims solar and wind are cheaper than “old dirty sources of energy” and that inaction would be extremely dangerous and destructive for America and the rest of the world. He further asserts that “carbon [dioxide] emissions” are linked to the “climate crisis.” He wants us to believe that man-made carbon dioxide is the dominant driver of global warming, that global warming is universally bad, and that the only way to prevent bad things from happening is to curtail our use of fossil fuels. He does not consider other options.
Let’s test these predictions. Are there any measurements today that suggest a future man-made climate catastrophe will occur? James Hansen wrote in his book Storms of my Grandchildren in 2009 that the Earth may become “runaway” if we burn our fossil fuel reserves and become barren like Venus. The late Stephen Hawking stated in a BBC interview with Pallab Ghosh in 2017, that:
“We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. … [We] could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid”
In reality, Venus has a surface temperature of 460° to 477°C. Hawking misspoke and said 250°C, but we knew what he meant. The fact is, this cannot happen if the Earth has oceans. Venus has no oceans and its atmosphere is 97 percent carbon dioxide. Water has an enormous heat capacity and because of this the Earth’s surface contains more thermal energy than the surface of Venus, even though Venus is at least 445°C (800°F) warmer. For the Earth to become like Venus would require the oceans to completely boil away and the resulting water vapor would have to be ejected into outer space, no greenhouse gas could accomplish that. The oceans contain over 99.9 percent (click here to download a spreadsheet with the details of this calculation) of the thermal energy on the surface of the Earth and their average temperature is only 4° to 5°C (40°F); they will not be boiling away anytime soon. The oceans also limit the maximum sea-surface temperature on Earth to 30°C (86°F) according to an article by Newell and Dopplick in the Journal of Applied Meteorology in 1979. This limit is supported by NASA researchers, Sud, Walker and Lau in a Geophysical Research Letters article in 1999 entitled: “Mechanisms Regulating Sea-Surface Temperatures and Deep Convection in the Tropics.”
Al Gore, Deepak Chopra and Sir David Attenborough have suggested that industrialization and economic growth are dangerous for the environment. But, we do not observe this. The developed world is cleaner and has a better environment than the developing world. Compare the environment in Switzerland or the USA to that in Haiti or Bangladesh, for example. NASA provides us with the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). The higher the index the better the environment. Haiti has an EPI just below 40 and Bangladesh has an EPI of just over 40. Switzerland, Western Europe, Iceland and the USA are all over 80. Once countries produce more than about US$2,000 per person, the country begins to invest in the environment. The environment improves steadily, until the EPI reaches 80 at about US$15,000 per person and then it flattens out. Prosperity, industrialization and economic growth lead to a cleaner environment, not the other way around. Details and a plot of the EPI for most countries can be seen here and in Figure 1.
Human health, life expectancy, and the percent of life spent disabled all improve as GDP per person improves according to the World Health Organization. Lant Prichett and Lawrence Summers documented some of this in an article in the Journal of Human Resources entitled “Wealthier is Healthier.” World life expectancy at birth has increased from 58 years in 1970 to 71.5 years today. According to the World Bank, as energy use per person increases in the world, life expectancy increases (Figure 2). The infectious disease rate worldwide has dropped from 900 per 100,000 people in 1970 to just over 100 today, according to the World Health Organization. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control the U.S. cancer rate has dropped from about 215 per 100,000 in 1992 to 160 per 100,000 today.
The population of the world has increased from 4.5 billion people in 1980 to over 7 billion people today according to the United Nations. Yet, the number of poor is less than half what it was in 1980 according to the World Bank. Food production is up, and each person has access to 700 more calories of food than they had in 1960 (UN FAO).
So, the data we have available today do not suggest economic growth, prosperity and increasing industrialization are causing an impending catastrophe, things seem to be improving, if anything. Climate and economic models suggest that things might change in the future, but models can be wrong and often are, as discussed in Judith Curry’s GWPF report Climate Models for the Layman (2017). Measurements are more important than models or “expert” predictions, if you don’t see the problem in the measurements, it’s not a problem. We have also seen that global warming will not destroy the planet or humans, even in the worst predictions, regardless of what James Hansen and Stephen Hawking have said.
Are solar and wind cheaper than fossil fuels? Not according to a peer-reviewed article in the journal Energy, by D. Weißbach, et al. in 2013. They did a very detailed study of energy returned on energy invested and found that solar, wind and biomass energy sources, when backed up for night time, cloudy days and still air, do not even meet the basic threshold of returning the enegy invested in their manufacture, operation and installation. Reports that solar and wind capacity (see the IEA here) additions might be cheaper than natural gas or coal plant additions by 2020 (or some other date) ignore the fact that solar energy does not work at night and wind power does not work when there is no wind or the wind speed is not in the ideal range. Research shows that nuclear, hydroelectric, coal and natural gas all do well in producing reliable electricity; but solar, biofuels and wind cannot even pay for themselves. The one scenario where solar might do a little better than breakeven is in the Sahara desert, but still it is very close to the economic threshold.
In a recent report on the levelized cost of generating electricity, the EIA carefully separates the cost calculations for “dispatchable” generation, such as coal or natural gas, from “non-dispatchable” technologies such as solar and wind. For our grid to work properly electricity has to be available on demand and not just when the wind blows and the Sun is shining. Since there is no currently available or planned technology for storing electricity at a grid scale, all solar and wind requires a 100% fossil-fuel, hydroelectric or nuclear backup. The EIA, unlike Weißbach, et al., does not add the cost of this backup into their comparison. So, why bother with solar and wind at all if you are going to have to build the fossil fuel backup anyway? From the EIA report:
“Because load must be balanced on a continuous basis, generating units with the capability to vary output to follow demand (dispatchable technologies) generally have more value to a system than less flexible units (non-dispatchable technologies), or than units using intermittent resource to operate. The LCOE [Levelized cost of electricity] values for dispatchable and non-dispatchable technologies are listed separately in the tables, because comparing them must be done carefully.” EIA report, page 2.
Does adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere drive climate change? To the best of our knowledge, the impact of man-made CO2 on climate has never been measured. Models, of various kinds have been used to estimate the impact, but the IPCC, in 2014, in their fifth climate assessment report would not even commit to a most likely value for the impact of doubling atmospheric CO2. They only reported a range of values from 1.5° to 4.5°C. It just so happens this is the same range reported by the 1979 National Academy of Sciences study, the so-called “Charney Report.” So, this topic has been researched for 38 years, by thousands of scientists, at a cost of over $100 billion, in the U.S. alone according to the GAO, and the impact of man-made carbon dioxide has still not been measured. The estimated range of values is still 1.5° to 4.5°C, a factor of 3. The assertion that man-made carbon dioxide is driving climate change has very little support in measurements.
As we wrote in Climate Catastrophe! Science or Science Fiction:
“99.9 percent of the Earth’s surface heat capacity and total surface thermal energy (heat) is in the oceans and less than 0.1 percent is in the atmosphere. Further, CO2 is only 0.04 percent of the atmosphere. It beggars belief that a trace gas (CO2), in an atmosphere that itself contains only a trace amount of the total thermal energy on the surface of the Earth, can control the climate of the Earth. This is not the tail wagging the dog, this is a flea on the tail of the dog wagging the dog. Extraordinary evidence is needed to convince us of this hypothesis. Since the impact of man-made CO2 on climate has never been measured and is only crudely estimated with unvalidated models, the jury is still out on this idea.”
The one change we can measure, that is due to man-made carbon dioxide emissions, is that they are largely responsible for making the Earth greener. This is particularly true in the Sahel region of Africa. In the May, 2017 issue of the journal Ecological Indicators, Peng Li, and co-authors show that additional atmospheric CO2 is largely responsible for an 18 percent increase in worldwide plant growth. The Sahel is also greener today due to additional CO2, according to a study published online in June 2015 by Buwen Dong and Rowan Sutton in Nature Climate Change. Zaichun Zhu and co-authors reported in Nature Climate Change in 2016 that the Earth is over 21 percent greener than in 1982 and that CO2 fertilization is responsible for over 70 percent of the greening. Thus, the only hard data we have on the impact of man-made carbon dioxide emissions is positive. Currently, it appears that these emissions are net beneficial. Richard Tol, in a paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2009, has hypothesized that the net gain from additional carbon dioxide may persist for decades. This hardly seems to be an urgent problem, if indeed, it is a problem at all. So, we ask:
Finally, we need to address methods and timing of solutions to the “climate crisis” if there is one. Gore’s proposed solution is mitigation. He has asserted man-made CO2 is the cause, so we need to emit less of it. This is his only proposed solution. Climate change has been with us for millions of years, humans have usually dealt with it by adapting or migrating to more pleasant climates.
We have established that climate change, whether man-made or not, is not an existential crisis. What are the potential problems then? Global (or eustatic) sea-level rise, currently 1.5 to 3.2 mm/year, is one potential problem for people who live on the coast. But, it’s not a problem for anyone else. There is a great debate about whether it might accelerate in the future, but there is no data showing acceleration now. In fact, the rate of sea-level rise since mid-2015, has been very modest as seen on the NOAA/NEDIS/STAR laboratory for satellite altimetry sea-level plot. The Church and White CSIRO dataset is plotted in Figure 4 for the 20th century.
The rate of sea-level rise changes over time with ocean cycles, but the long-term trend is modest and quite linear. Sea-level rise, or the equivalent problem of isostatic land sinking, which is happening in some areas, can be dealt with locally much more effectively with infrastructure like sea walls and barriers, or by encouraging people to move to safer areas. Likewise, regardless of Al Gore’s histrionics, extreme weather is not increasing, and most data shows it is decreasing as the world warms, as discussed by Roger Pielke Jr., in his U.S. House of Representatives testimony in 2017. If people continue to live and build in areas prone to extreme weather, the best solution is better infrastructure, or increasing insurance rates to discourage building.
The world has warmed about 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees F) since the 19th century. The geological epoch since the last glacial maximum is called the Holocene, which began about 11,700 years ago. In central Greenland, where we have high quality ice core records of air temperature, the GISP2 record by Richard Alley (2004) shows a 10°C temperature increase from 11,755 years ago to 11,611 years ago, this is 18°F in 144 years! Evidence that the surface air temperatures rose 5-10°C in just a few decades over the entire Northern Hemisphere at this time is presented in (Severinghaus, et al. 1998), link. This warming event occurred well before man used fossil fuels. Humans adapted to this change and even thrived. Farming was invented and the first stone monument we know of was built near Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey about this time.
There is no evidence of an impending climate crisis in the data, and the climate model projections are all contestable. Historically, humans have adapted well to climate changes and humans currently live in areas with temperatures of 120°F and -58°F. We have already adapted, somewhere, to extremes that are much worse than any projected by the global climate models. Adaptation in place, or moving to a place with a better climate, is easier for prosperous people than poor people. The number of poor people peaked in 1970 at 2.2 billion and has declined to 705 million in 2015 according to the World Bank and OurWorldinData.org. The number of poor are fewer every day. The best protection we can offer humanity from potentially dangerous climate change is a prosperous and robust economy. Local adaptation to climate change, whether natural or man-made, is always better, more efficient, and more effective than trying to mitigate climate change worldwide by curtailing or eliminating fossil fuels.
Cheap, widely available energy makes us more prosperous and more adaptable. Let’s not eliminate the one tool that ensures our future or increase its price unnecessarily. The debate on the possible dangers of man-made carbon dioxide emissions will continue. As we conduct this debate we need to separate conjecture from observations (data). When model projections are presented, ask if they are validated. Have they predicted anything accurately? Are there any current data that show a significant change in trend? If the model projections of catastrophe cannot be seen in current observations, they are not a problem. Be skeptical.
Andy May is a writer and author of “Climate Catastrophe! Science or Science-Fiction?” He retired in 2016 after 42 years in the oil and gas industry as a petrophysicist.