Tag Archives: Carbon dioxide

Small amounts of very active substances can have large effects, but this doesn’t prove that carbon dioxide is such a substance

Two things came together today. First was A Guide to Understanding Global Temperature Data by Roy Spencer, which I read a week or so ago. Second, I was pointed to an article in the Guardian in which a white paper written by the same Roy Spencer was being rebutted.

Initially, it was not clear which paper was referred to and, although there were also 13 questions involved, the rebutted items didn’t seem to be similar to the guide that I read earlier. So I was a bit confused. Did Spencer wrote another white paper in which he also used that 13-questions format, but with other arguments?

Becoming curious, I went back to the beginning of the article to look for the source, and surprisingly, when I clicked the link of the white paper, the Guide to Understanding Global Temperature Data popped up. Strange. The white paper that the Guardian was rebutting, seems to be the exact same paper that I read a week ago…

The author of the article, Dana Nuccitelli, claimed that the arguments in the guide were an example of a Gish Gallop and therefor too time-consuming to rebut. Therefor he pointed to the Climate Myth database that was compiled by Skeptical Science and in stead of rebutting the arguments in the white paper, he just linked to entries in that database.

So far, so good. Let’s start with how the first argument was rebutted:

1) ‘Carbon dioxide is a trace gas’ is rebutted as Myth #127.

That was odd. I didn’t recognize this being one of the arguments that Spencer used in his guide, yet here the answer on question 1 seems to be reduced to “Carbon dioxide is a trace gas” and was rebutted as such. Meaning as if was being said that CO2 couldn’t have important effects because it is a trace gas in the atmosphere.

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(Catastrophic Anthropogenic) Global Warming hypothesis as a godsend

When tidying up my desk, I found a leaflet that got lost in a pile of papers. It was a leaflet from 2012 and came from 11.11.11 (an umbrella organization of Flemish North-South organizations). The leaflet was about the effects of climate change on the poor people of Africa. It dated from a time that this blog was still just an idea playing in my head and it probably evaded the paper bin because it is such a fine example coming from the we-can-change-the-climate department.

It started with a bang (translated from Dutch, emphasis by the author of the leaflet):

Dear readers

The climate is changing. You know that. With dramatic consequences. Every year, at least 300,000 people become climate victims in the South. And it will get worse if we don’t do anything.

Climate changes, nobody will doubt that. But that is obviously not what he meant. If you look at the leaflet as a whole, he meant “human induced” climate change. Changed by our emissions. It will hit home because the public is conditioned for many years by the media to understand it as such and the author surely is not going to give any background to make them think otherwise.

So judging from the first five sentences, the text is clearly emotional laden and it continues that way with two stories. One about a boy from Niger (Adamou) who can’t go to school because he has to get water always further away and one about farmers from Kenya (Rose and Simon Lokidongoi) who lost their last cow because of drought.

Then the upper-cut (translated from Dutch, emphasis by the author of the leaflet):

The biggest victims of climate change are exactly those who are the least responsible for it.
Do you find this unfair. Me too.

If it wasn’t already clear that this is an emotional appeal, now it should be. These people were painted as climate change victims, specifically because of our emissions. No other causes are given. So these two tragic stories seemed to be suggested as our fault and we have to make it better again by lowering our emissions and encouraging our politicians to do the same for our country and Europe.

At the back of the leaflet we get the consequences of global warming per degree Celsius (at this moment, +1 °C, +2 °C, +3 °C and even +6 °C). These were deliciously vague claims. For example, these are the effects of climate change already right now (translated from Dutch):

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A more plausible reason for the “slowdown” of emissions

In their 2013 report “Trends in global CO2 emissions”, the PBL (Environmental Assessment Agency of the Netherlands) stated that CO2 emissions started to slow down. It was repeated four time in that page and a couple time in their interactive presentation. They came to this startling conclusion because of the last year trend of 1.1%, compared tot the average of the last decade, which was 2.9 °C and the reason for this slowdown was according to them partly caused by the growth of renewable energy. Also that got repeated several times.

It only takes looking at those ten last years to realize the answer will be a bit different. But let’s first start with how they represented it in their presentation:

If the difference between the years is so important, let’s calculate the differences between the years of the last decade in that graph (source of the data):

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A 733% growth of something insignificant is still tiny

In the process of looking for information for use in previous posts, I came along the website of PBL (Environmental Assessment Agency of the Netherlands). An interesting page was: Trends in global CO2 emissions: 2013 report (with the 2012 data). This is how it starts:

Actual global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached a new record of 34.5 billion tonnes in 2012. Yet, the increase in global CO2 emissions in that year slowed down to 1.1% (or 1.4%, not accounting the extra day in the leap year), which was less than half the average annual increase of 2.9% over the last decade. This development signals a shift towards less fossil-fuel-intensive activities, more use of renewable energy and increased energy saving.

Basically, 2012 was the year with the highest emissions ever, but there seem to be a slowdown in which the the use of renewable energy was a factor. My first reaction: “No way!”. The proportion of renewables is really tiny compared to fossil fuels, so I am not really convinced that the current use of renewable energy sources would have a slowing effect on CO2 emissions.

There is also an interactive presentation “Trends in global CO2 that explains it a bit more. More specifically in the slide with the title “Are there signs of change?”. It depicts a field of solar panels to take the message even more home. Below that picture a chart of the share of renewables, low-carbon energy and fossil fuels. First the situation of 1990:

Share of wind and solar increasing 1990. Source: http://infographics.pbl.nl/website/globalco2/

Share of wind and solar 1990. Source: http://infographics.pbl.nl/website/globalco2/

In 1990 the renewable energy sources were almost non-existing compared to the other energy sources.

One could click the 2012 button and then one would see the situation in 2012:

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The carbon dioxide trap


It is a statement that I heard many times before: “What’s wrong with cleaning up CO2 emissions? Even if science of CO2 is not correct, we will end up with a cleaner environment”. I have to admit that is also what I thought until some years before, but came back from it.

Let me first say I am not against cleaning up pollution, on the contrary. But I think CO2 is not necessary a “pollutant” in the way we think of harmful substances. CO2 is an essential part of life. Plants need it for photosynthesis and if they would have a vote, they would go for more emissions. On the other hand we, as humans, don’t have to fear toxic effects of it. It becomes only toxic for us in very high concentrations. If we would burn all fossil fuel we would not even come close.

The reason why a rising CO2 concentration is feared is because it is a greenhouse gas. But as a greenhouse gas it is not particularly powerful, also not the most abundant. More, its effects are logarithmic, so the effects are decreasing with higher concentrations. Even the IPCC, after overstating it for many years, had to downgrade the warming effects of CO2 (they didn’t tell it with that many words).

But these are not the reasons why I came back from the statement cleaning up CO2 from the atmosphere. Yes, I think its effects on the climate are much overstated as more scientists seem to come to this conclusion, but there are deeper issues. If we declare a problem and it is in fact not (much of) the problem, then people will get creative to try solving it even if it doesn’t need solving. It can prevent us from looking at the real problems and find a real solution.

An example that I have recently read on the Climate Etc blog (on the paper of John Pethick and Julian Orford): the World Bank stated in a press release that human caused global warming will cause significant sea level rise and Bangladesh will be affected. But according to Judith Curry this line of thinking may spell danger to the population of Bangladesh because its sea level rise problem is not really driven by climate change, but by land subsidence.

Policies targeted at trying to help this situation through emissions reductions seem futile. But of even greater concern are WorldBank and other adaptation strategies for Bangladesh will not be adequate if they are targeted only at the global warming piece of the problem. This is a very large geo-political issue with regards to the substantial international (UN, WorldBank) funds targeted at climate change adaptation. Bangladesh’s sea level rise problem is not really driven by climate change – the risks here are that UN/WB adaptation solutions will be inadequate to help them deal with their sea level rise problem, or that Bangladesh will find itself ineligible for international climate adaptation funds.

Might Bangladesh become a tragic victim of the UNFCCC/IPCC oversimplification of the climate change problem and its solutions?

Another example is the Kiribati/Tuvalu story from last post. If their problem is attributed to rising sea level caused by increasing CO2 levels, then there is no need to find a solution. This attitude makes them basically powerless. Therefor hoping for the funds of those countries that feel guilty and are eager to compensate. Ignoring the real problems like increasing pressure on the fresh water lenses because of overpopulation and increasing tourism, destruction of the protective reef for building material, more paving,…

That’s the real danger: that we will not necessarily have a cleaner environment after dealing with a non-problem, how altruistic the intention might be, and that the problem still exists. Leaving us with less resources to face it. CO2 being very expensive to tackle, that might not leave much.

A breathtaking gibe


A breathtaking quote from former Governor Schwarzenegger at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas on Tuesday:

Schwarzenegger got off some good gibes to win the crowd over.

Speaking of greenhouse gas deniers: “Strap some conservative-thinking people to a tailpipe for an hour and then they will agree it’s a pollutant!”

I know this is used just as a catch phrase, but it is very misleading nevertheless. Let me explain why.

Some initial thoughts

When inhaling car exhaust gases, CO2 is the least of our worries. There are other components in exhaust gases that have much more negative effects. Most importantly is what is NOT there: oxygen. It is used for the combustion, so there will be not much to none in the exhaust gases while we need at minimum 18%. That wouldn’t be a pleasant ride.

Another dangerous component in exhaust gases is CO (Carbon Monoxide). It is a lethal substance even in a low concentration. CO has the ability to bind more than 240 times better to hemoglobin than oxygen. Hemoglobin is the substance in our red blood cells that carry the oxygen absorbed via the lungs around the body to the cells that need it. This means that even with a small concentration of the gas, relatively large amount of CO will bind with hemoglobin and come into the bloodstream. In the end, the person will suffer from an oxygen deprivation (too many CO has taken the place of oxygen). This process in not easily reversed. A treatment for CO-intoxication is inhaling a high concentration of oxygen under high pressure, to slowly reverse the strong bond of CO with the hemoglobin. People who die from inhaling car exhaust gases are called to die from CO-intoxication intoxication for a reason. They don’t call it a CO2-intoxication although they inhaled a much higher concentration of CO2 than CO.

More specific

CO2 and exhaust gases are used as synonyms. The assumption is made that the effects of the tailpipe are due to CO2. This is not true at all. If there was more oxygen and less CO in the exhaust gases, than the effects would be from the CO2, but in reality most of the negative effects would from other things than CO2.

CO2 is called a pollutant that effects us humans in a bad way. Sure, in exhaust gases it is about 14% and by displacing oxygen it will make this lethal if sustained. But in reality the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is only 0,04% (coming from 0.03%). That’s a HUUUUUGE difference from where it becomes harmful.

Pollutant is a relative term. CO2 is essential for life and in the current concentration harmless to our health. Even if we double or triple it, it doesn’t come anywhere near harmful levels. In fact we thank a lot on CO2. No plants → no humans. More CO2 → more biomass (farmers know this and use it to their advantage).

I don’t know if it were Schwarzenegger’s words or from the reporter, but what are “greenhouse gas deniers”? That doesn’t make much sense. For the record: I don’t think this does mean those people deny that there are greenhouse gases. It probably means that those people don’t believe in the (catastrophic) effects of the (human portion of the) increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.


Strapping someone to a tailpipe to let him experience something first hand is a powerful emotional image, but it misses the purpose completely. The experience wouldn’t learn that “conservative-thinking” person anything about the alleged charge that CO2 is a pollutant.

So let us look at it as an emotional message constructed to win over the crowd, but that has nothing to do with reality whatsoever.

What’s in a number?


For those who didn’t heard the news yet, since shortly CO2 levels in Mauna Loa starting to reach 400 ppm. It was hailed as an important number, some even talked about a tipping point. So I thought it would be an interesting project to look into this a bit more in detail and find how much is too much when CO2 is concerned.

First things first, the 400 ppm level. I read about it in a paper last Tuesday. I could trace back the origin to a media alert by Christina Figueres, executive Secretary of UNFCCC.

“With 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, we have crossed an historic threshold and entered a new danger zone. The world must wake up and take note of what this means for human security, human welfare and economic development. In the face of clear and present danger, we need a policy response which truly rises to the challenge. We still have a chance to stave off the worst effects of climate change, but this will require a greatly stepped-up response across all three central pillars of action: action by the international community, by government at all levels, and by business and finance.”

“Historic threshold”, “new danger zone”, “in the face of clear and present danger”! No hyperboles were spared in this one. But hey, we lucky people, we still have a chance to evade this bullet!

The big question we started with: how much is too much? I remember that this is not the first time the media reported major tipping points. I remembered values of 350 ppm, 650 ppm and the pre-industrial level. Picture my surprise when I hit Google with some search terms and found loads of links to statements which involves numerous CO2 tipping points. Next you will find one or two examples of each level. There are loads more to be found on the internet.

Let’s start with a very known level. There is of course the 350 org organization, which states 350 ppm is the upper limit and we should return to that to be on the safe side.

350 means climate safety. To preserve our planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm. But 350 is more than a number-it’s a symbol of where we need to head as a planet.

We passed that for already 2 decades now. Seems less dangerous than originally thought. But there are even lower tipping points predicted. Some scientists like for example James Hansen states that 300 ppm is the real safe limit. Read more about this on the
300.org google site and some contemplation about whether 300 ppm or 350 ppm is a safe limit.:

2. Urgent reduction of atmospheric CO2 to a safe level of about 300 ppm as recommended by leading climate and biological scientists.

These are probably levels from almost 70 years ago! Even that seems too high. What about 280 ppm? Earth was, ahum, “in balance” with that, so it would be straight forward to aim for that level. According to State of Nature

If burning fossil fuels like coal and oil during industrialization has created the mess we’re in with climate change, it seems only logical that we should aim for pre-industrial levels of atmospheric CO2 of 280 ppm.

or the book Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming by Guy Daunce p31:

We need a target that guarantees the safety of our planet – in other words 280 ppm.

That’s more than 150 years ago we had that level. Apparently mayhem takes its time. And even that is much too high. Professor Schellnhuber says that we need to be less than 280 ppm!

Schellnhuber states that we need to go to pre-industrial levels of CO2 emissions (less than 280ppm) to save the planet

How much lower?

global emissions to be reduced to 220-225ppm.

Oops, earth must have experienced loads of dangerous tipping points during the last 800,000 years! Who knew?

Not much chance for tipping points higher than currently stated 400 ppm, you think.

You would be wrong.

Giss states levels above 450 ppm would be dangerous:

According to study co-author Makiko Sato of Columbia’s Earth Institute, “the temperature limit implies that CO2 exceeding 450 ppm is almost surely dangerous, and the ceiling may be even lower.

Step it up a notch: 500 ppm.
The book Understanding Environmental Pollution by Hill (p406):

500 ppm is considered a “tipping point” beyond which humanity must not allow itself to go before irrevocable changes could take place in our climate.

What about 550 ppm:
According to Avoiding dangerous climate change-page at Wikipedia

“Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: A Scientific Symposium on Stabilisation of Greenhouse Gases” was a 2005 international conference[16] that examined the link between atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, and the 2 °C (3.6 °F) ceiling on global warming thought necessary to avoid the most serious effects of global warming. Previously this had generally been accepted as being 550 ppm

560 is also a real nice number (twice the pre-industrial level of 280). On the climate avenue website:

It is calculated that if the carbon dioxide concentration reaches 560 ppm, the world will be in great danger.

Yikes! It is even calculated! Are there higher bidders?

Yes, there are. 650 ppm:
Golden Rules Report (pdf)

The Golden Rules Case puts CO 2 emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with
stabilizing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions at around
650 parts per million, a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more
than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target.

But it doesn’t stop there: what about tripling or quadrupling the pre-industrial level (840 – 1120 ppm)? NY Times reports:

Some experts think the level of the heat-trapping gas could triple or even quadruple before emissions are reined in.
Even if climate sensitivity turns out to be on the low end of the range, total emissions may wind up being so excessive as to drive the earth toward dangerous temperature increases

Here I stopped my search. This was a dizzying experience. So many declared tipping points and I even didn’t searched for increments of 25 yet. From 220 to 1120, that is quite a difference! Some advice for those who want to declare a new tipping point: 50 at the end is nice, but increments of 100 or increments of 280 are even better.

Why so many declared tipping points? Let’s go back to the media alert of the UNPCCC:

Governments will be meeting 3 – 14 June in Bonn for the next round of climate change talks
under the umbrella of the UNFCCC. A central focus of the talks will be negotiations to build a new
global climate agreement and to drive greater immediate climate action.

So, why 400 ppm? Well, if it is there, why not just using it? The 400 ppm is a political move, those meeting Governments will get that rubbed in to steer the negotiations into a certain direction. The other declared tipping points probably also had their specific purpose. They are probably more symbolic in nature than scientific.

Speaking of numbers with a symbolic meaning, this is the 13th post on this blog. Should I start getting nervous? 😉