Monthly Archives: December 2015

The “climate risk denial” label


The surge in views of a couple days ago came from both sides of the debate. The post was apparently shared by skeptics as well as alarmists, but of course different things were emphasized. The skeptical side linked the post itself. The alarmist side picked just one of the things that Tol said (agreed, it was not smart thing to say), ignoring all the rest.

When following a link from the WordPress Dashboard, I landed on an alarmist blog and found the link to my post in the comments section. There was also a interesting reaction: the question why someone found it necessary to put a link to a “climate risk denial” article? That “climate risk denial” article being my post of course.

I must admit that I am really amazed with the many ridiculous ways “denial” is being labeled. I heard many of those before, like “climate denier” (how can one deny climate!?!?), “science denier” (as far as I know, skeptics don’t deny science), “climate change denier” (strange, skeptics believe in climate change, not in the way that alarmists believe though) or “global warming denier” (most skeptics believe that temperatures have risen). The current “climate risk denier” label was however new to me.

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Definitions and how they change meaning

This blog got quite a boost on Saturday and Sunday when one of previous posts got tweeted by Tom Nelson and Paul Matthews (thanks to both of you). This gave rise to a sudden surge in views of this humble blog. Looking at the explosion of (re)tweets, skeptic and alarmist, something caught my eye that I didn’t noticed before. The title of this post was:

The absurd idea that our grandchildren are in danger from global warming

This was shortened from the title of the online article:

Climate researcher: the idea that our grandchildren are in danger because the earth is warming, is absurd

But suddenly it appeared to me that my short title would be interpreted differently depending the viewpoints of the one that is reading it. Let me explain. To me “Warming of the Earth” is the same as “Global warming”, but that is not the same for everybody. There are different definitions for “Global warming” and therefor the term will be understood differently.

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Playing the man, not the arguments

In previous post I mentioned that it was quite remarkable that not only Tol’s views were published, but also were published without the need for a reply. This was true in the online version of the article, but a day later it was also printed in the paper version of the newspaper and it had a (rather short) reply from the policy coordinator of Bond Beter Leefmilieu.

Reply BBL on Tol (Het Laatste Nieuws December 22, 2015)

Reply BBL on Tol (Het Laatste Nieuws December 22, 2015)

There was however an intriguing common theme in this reply. Let’s look at it one by one (all quotes were translated from Dutch):

Tol is an economist who believes that money is the only thing that matters.

I don’t know Tol personally, but from his writings I don’t share that impression. Of course it might be true, but it has nothing to do with any of the arguments that Tol presented.

He comes to conclusions that differs from common sense

I have to firmly disagree with this one. About seven years ago, I also believed that the climate change issue and its proposed solutions, were common sense. Looking back, this was because I only got to see one side of the story which gave no other explanation. But when we focus on what we effectively know (not assume, suppose, model, predict, expect, speculate,…), then the global warming issue doesn’t make any sense at all.

But that is no reaction on any of Tol’s arguments.

and [differs from] the consensus among climate scientists

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The absurd idea that our grandchildren are in danger from global warming

On Monday we were treated to an article in the online version of Het Laatste Nieuws (translation: The Latest News) with the catching title Climate researcher: “The idea that our grandchildren are in danger because the earth is warming, is absurd” (Dutch).

Reading the article, that “climate researcher” appeared to be Richard Tol, a professor of the economics of climate change. The article is quite different from the usual doom stories in the mainstream media. He explains that climate change is a very complex subject, that climate science is a young science, that lots of things are not known yet, that the climate has almost no influence on our wellbeing/prosperity and that we have the money/knowledge to do something against for example half a meter sea level rise. Also things like that there is no reason to assume that climate change is so terrible (unless you are fundraising for Greenpeace or are a politician who present himself as savior of humanity) or that the boys and girls of the KNMI (the Dutch weather bureau) had to do what they are paid for (forecasting the weather).

Quite a relief to read compared to the messages we normally get from the mainstream media. This sentiment was shared by many of the commenters. At this moment there are 106, most of them positive. Saying for example “That man has it right”, “Hallelujah, at last a skeptical view in the media”, “Nice that this view get published”, “Thank God for someone with common sense” and so on. I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t expect so many positive reactions. It shows that although our mainstream media is only reporting on the other side and restrict skeptical views, there are more people than I would expect who are not influenced by this, have other sources of information and/or have an innate skepticism. That is heartwarming.

I don’t go along with all of Tol’s arguments though. There are two that seems dubious to me. Like the statement that the maximum expected global warming (± 5 °C) would be nothing to worry about because between 6 am and 12 am there is already a difference of 8 °C. In our daily life scale that will indeed be true, but I am not really sure whether one can compare actual temperatures with an average annual temperature difference and expect it to be meaningful in reality. These are different beasts altogether. The same with sea level rise. A rise from the feet to the knees over a century doesn’t seems that much, but it is also an average, not comparable to an actual water level.

But I do agree that such changes are over a very long time and could be countered.

It is remarkable that such an article is being published, even without a reply or downplaying from the other side. This is a very rare occasion indeed. I hope the journalists aren’t getting into trouble for this.

The subject in the title was that we seem to care more about the future of the grandchildren than the current poverty. He sees poverty as a bigger problem than climate change (I agree) and asked the rhetorical question whether one will help the poor by reduce the emission of greenhouse gases or by fighting poverty?

That is what I foremost remember from this article: the disconnect between current real problems (like real pollution and poverty) that kills many millions right now, while policy makers are focusing on an issue that might cause problems many decades from now. That is indeed bonkers.

Translation of the article

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Certainties and risk perception (2)

Continuing with the opening statement of Senator Peters. In previous post I had the impression that his risk perception was seriously influenced by his (unwarranted) certainty of the understanding of the climate system, his specific definition of “global warming” and the very strong simplification of what is in fact a very complex system. This have led him to believe that the science is clear that there are huge risks involved. The rest of the opening statement also builds on this and politics enters the mix.

But first he reflected on the disagreement he was expecting in this panel:

We going to hear today that there is some disagreement, some disagreement, in the scientific community of the magnitude of that risk. As a matter of fact, we going to hear from three scientists and a political commentator and blogger, who disagree with various aspects of the scientific consensus as well as to argue that the science is not settled.

Interesting are the repeated of “some disagreement”, as to underline that there is only a little bit of disagreement. That “some disagreement” seems to be only on the magnitude of the risk. We already know what he thinks the magnitude is of that risk. Just two sentences earlier, he said that “the possible consequences of all these areas range from the bad to the catastrophic”. Which he probably thinks is the consensus position.

That the science is not settled is I think a given. Anyone who claims that a science (studying a complex, coupled, chaotic system with sparse, constantly changing historical data, pointing to one specific parameter amongst thousands) is settled, is not really honest in my opinion.

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Certainties and risk perception

Back to the “Data or Dogma?” hearing of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In two previous posts (here and here) I gave my thoughts on why the only-few-skeptics-versus-the-rest is not a very good argument. This post will focus on the view point of those who rely on the consensus. At the beginning of the hearing, Senator Peters gave an opening statement in which he explained his viewpoint on the science and how this effects policies. To me it was interesting because it showed where the risk perception came from.

data or dogma? Peters

Peters started with explaining that, when thinking about global warming, there are risks and certainties. He first started with the certainties:

By burning fossil fuels, humans are releasing carbon into the atmosphere that would have otherwise remained locked away. This process creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, that traps heat that otherwise would have radiated off into spaces. We know that by the law of conservation of energy that additional heat can’t just magically disappear. In stead it causes our planet to get warmer.

What else is certain? We already see the symptoms of a warming planet. Not just in the temperature records, but in the rising sea, shrinking ice levels, in toxic algae blooms that are flourishing in the great lakes that were made worse by increased precipitation, runoff and warmer water temperatures, tainting drinking water for 2.8 million people in recent years. All of that is certain.

The first paragraph is not controversial. Skeptics also agree that burning fossil fuels releases CO2 in the atmosphere, that this is a greenhouse gas, that it therefor has the ability to trap heat and that, all other things being equal, it would be warmer than without that extra CO2. But he stops where it really gets interesting. The theory indeed suggests that humans are the cause of the warming because they are adding CO2 in the atmosphere. However, reality is much more nuanced. In a simple system that would be straight forward, but how does it work in the complex, coupled, chaotic system that is our climate? Anthropogenic CO2 is not the only factor in the equation, there are thousands, maybe millions others and they could all influence each other. How much do we know of this system, knowing that there is only a couple decades or less of reliable historical data? The climate changed in the past without us, so how do we currently differentiate between warming by natural and anthropogenic CO2?

Some other interesting questions would be: how much of that uncertainty is communicated to the policy makers? How politicized is the science? How can we avoid bias? How much can we rely on the mathematical models to project x years into the future? And so on.

The examples he gave in the second paragraph are indeed symptoms of a warming world, but it doesn’t say anything about the cause. That warming could well be natural as anthropogenic or, more likely, a mix of both. It also depends on ones definition of “Global Warming”, some of those effects seems local to me. That aside, So none of these examples accurately helps to advance his case. They don’t suggest that humans are the cause. This would also be true even if that warming was 100% natural (which I don’t think it is).

To me, the stated certainties are not relevant to what he want to do with this knowledge. The first paragraph didn’t take into account the reality of a complex system and therefor over-estimated the certainty. The second paragraph had nothing to do with the anthropogenic aspect of global warming.

Then Peters continued with the risks:

Managing risk is all about looking at a range of possible outcomes and consequences. Looking at the likelihood of each of those consequences and then looking to see if there is anything you can do to reduce the likelihood of those consequences or both.

In can agree with this, but the question arises how that will work out in the complex system that is climate.

From our models and from our understanding of the science we see a range of potential outcomes, a range of possible warming trends, a range of consequences based on those trends. There are implications for our national security, for the economic health of our country, for our food supply and agriculture and for the health and safety of Michiganians, Americans as well as people around the planet.

So here we have it. It is indeed possible to see a range of potential outcomes from mathematical models and the understanding of the science. But how meaningful this potential outcome is, depends on the accuracy of those models or the certainty of the science. A science that is studying a complex, coupled and chaotic system over a long time-frame with only some decades of reliable data. There should be quite some uncertainties there.

As described in the written testimony of Dr. Christy, the models over-estimate the warming at a rate three times that of the real world. This over the past 37 years, in a period with the highest concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, therefor the effect of the additional CO2 should be large. They don’t do a good job in telling us what should have happened until now, why should we expect them to accurately projecting what will happen in the future? As Dr. Christy worded it at the hearing:

Being off by a factor of three does not qualify in my book as settled science

To me it looks like the science is being oversold to the policy makers. How sure can we be if the warming is overstated three times what is observed in reality and huge uncertainties are not communicated to the policy makers? That brings us to Peters’ following remark:

The possible consequences of all these areas range from the bad to the catastrophic.

Well, of course. If policy makers only hear how good the science is and don’t hear how the models diverge from reality, don’t hear that uncertainties are inherent when working with a complex system with few data to begin with, then I could understand where that comes from. This put a different light on what he said next:

Even our best scientific judgment of our risk posture of the consequences that we face as a civilization and the likelihood of those consequences occurring, we must do what we can to mitigate these risks.

In a science with less uncertainties, with mathematical models that more or less match reality and with plenty of reliable historical data, I would not have any problem with such a statement. But that is not exactly the system we live in.

Pledging to decrease emissions (by increasing them)

It was not my intention to look deeper into the COP21 conference, but I couldn’t resist. The thing that got this started was an info graphic I saw in a news paper. It depicted the pledges of the largest emitters and amongst them the pledge of Russia. To me, that pledge stood out like a sore thumb. My initial reaction at that time was:

No way!

25-30% emission reduction, that is incredibly nice of Mr. Putin, but I thought there was something fishy with this message. Russia is not exactly the country that bought into the global warming scare. They have been very skeptical and probably will have more advantages than disadvantages from a warming climate. They also clearly said that they wouldn’t sacrifice their economy in order to cut emissions. So reading that they are actually willing to cut their emissions by 25 to 30% by 2030 sounds unbelievable to me.

As with so many things concerning climate policies reporting, the devil is in the detail. The detail here is “compared to what”. That “what” being the emissions in 1990:

Emissions Pledge Russia

Aha! Now it makes a lot more sense. I know where that comes from, I have seen such construction before. When I looked at the emission reductions of the developing countries, emission data showed that Russia and Ukraine were responsible for 95% of the (relatively small) decrease in emissions of the developing countries. So the increasing share of alternative power sources couldn’t be the cause of that decrease, because that share was/is almost non-existing in both countries.

The reason why the Russia’s emissions of Russia dropped from 1989 was the collapse of the Soviet Union and many energy inefficient factories and heavy industry that closed their doors. Taking the emissions of 1990 as a base would have rather interesting results.

I had still some recent data of emissions on my hard drive, so I went for a very quick back-on-the-envelop look. This is how the emissions trend is for Russia, just look at the quickly dropping numbers starting from 1989 and its slow recovery at the end of last century:


Source of the data:

A rough look learns us that a 25% reduction from 1990 would mean that they are already almost at their target, so that reduction by 2030 turns out to be quite meaningless. By the way, 25-30% of 1990 levels was exactly what they also agreed to do by 2020.

It didn’t stop there. There still was that intriguing statement that “Russia’s massive forests absorb around 500m tonnes of CO2 each year”. Was this included in the pledge? When looking for more information I found the Russian INDC submission (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution). This explains that they want the contribution of the Russian forests taken fully into account in their pledge. This indeed seemed to be estimated to 500 Mt CO2 per year (since 2000). So let me add to the graph above what the Russians think their emissions actually are and how that relates to their target:


Source of the data:

Also look at the direction of the current emissions:


Source of the data:

That trend is upwards and only interrupted by the 2008 financial crisis. They were serious when saying they don’t want to sacrifice their economy.

Just continuing looking at it on a rough scale, they dropped about 500 Mt in the 14 years from 1990 until 2013, being already more or less on their target right now. But because of their creative accounting, they still have a spare 500 Mt (from absorption of CO2 by their forests), which means that they can continue as they do now without even missing their target.

25-30% emission reduction sounds really nice, but the contrary seems to be true. In stead of willing to decrease their emissions by 25%, they actually have even room for a INcrease of 25% to get their “target” by 2030. Even if they continue to increase their emissions at the same rate as it is increasing since 1999, they would probably still reach their target. Clever guys, these Russians.

I was surprised that this was only skin-deep. Just scratching at the surface will show it. If the pledge of Russia looks so very promising from the outside, but worthless when you look deeper, what about the submissions of the other countries? Just look at what India pledged: a decrease of 33-35% reduction in emission, ahem, “intensity”…

This act of creative accounting by the Russians could well be the tip of the iceberg.

Found in the meanwhile some more of those creative accounting techniques (Dutch). Beside the Russian plan, there are also:

  • South Korea and Mexico promised to decrease their emissions against their “expected emissions” for the next 15 years (South Korea plans to emit 35% “less extra”)
  • China and India likewise “decrease” their emissions by using their fossil fuels more efficiently to produce the same (that is the reduction in “emission intensity” seen above)
  • The USA promise to limit their emissions “by 26%” compared to 2005. Meaning already 10 year in progress and that 26% is in fact 15%
  • Europe promises to decrease emissions “by 40%” against base year 1990. Meaning already halfway and that impressive 40% is in fact 20%.

I didn’t check these numbers, just put them here as I found it.
Those countries seem to do their very best to impress/fool each other and the public with their numbers.