Winter Institute Tuesday, Mar 2 2010 

Again for those in the St. Cloud area, the economics department of SCSU is holding their 48th annual Winter Institute summit regarding “business and economic leadership.” It is being held on Thursday, March 4th. The first half of the event, dubbed the Academic Event, is being held in the Kimberly Ristche Auditorium in Stewart Hall for free from 8:30 A.M until 12:45 P.M. There will be lunch at noon in Atwood for $12.50, but this requires registration and I believe it is full at this time. A list of topics and speakers for the Academic Event cant be seen here. Following the Academic Event will be the Business Event, which is being held at the Best Western Kelly Inn from 2:30 P.M. until 7:30 P.M. This also requires registration and a fee. I’m not sure if this event is also full at this time. A list of topics and speakers for the Business Event can be seen here.

The event is being described as “a valuable glimpse into a vastly changed economy. Attend the SCSU morning & luncheon events for a deep discussion on economic theory, or come to the Kelly Inn afternoon & evening events for business insights and bold predictions.” There appears to be a good lineup of economics speakers for the Academic Event, including Barry Nalebuff of Yale University, Costas Azariadis of Washington University, James Bullard who is the president of the Federal Reserve Bank at St. Louis. The Business Event will include these same speakers, as well as some regional businessmen and King Banaian, who is the chairman and a professor of the economics department. The closing speaker will be Yoram Bauman who is also from the University of Washington.

Dr. Bauman is particularly interesting to me, given that he will be speaking on climate change and because I’ve done a great deal of research on the topic as well (see here for previous posts on the subject). I won’t be attending that event, but I did read a few posts on his blog regarding climate change, and they’re all quite interesting. I’m glad Dr. Bauman recognizes that climate change is a real problem and that it has significant economic implications. I was reading, for example, this post about “libertarians on global warming,” where he accuses libertarians of the “Three No’s” (a humorous reference to the dubious “Three No’s” associated with the Khartoum Resolution): “No recognition that climate change is a theoretical possibility … No peace with the IPCC … No negotiation about climate change science, i.e., no serious scientific engagement.” It is true that rightist libertarians (e.g. Cato Institute) do tend to deny climate change science for whatever partisan reasons they have (they surely have no scientific basis), but I don’t think this necessarily has anything to do with libertarianism per se. True libertarians ought to be concerned—not dismissive—about climate change, as it represents a serious violation of the rights of not only current human beings but also of future human beings, as I explain in this post. As I point out, the issue is essentially an issue of externalities, which has an easy (market-based) solution. Dr. Bauman seems to agree when he writes, “the way market-based instruments reduce pollution is by making pollution expensive.” However, I unfortunately won’t be attending that event, so I won’t be able to write about it.

This summit presents a great opportunity for those in the St. Cloud area to be engaged in the economic issues of our time and is being presented by great economic thinkers. It’s not an opportunity you’ll want to miss. I will try to attend some of the speeches and may post a response some time later.

So much ado, but about what? Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

I get tired writing about global warming (read: anthropogenic climate change). As far as I am concerned, the main conclusions are settled. The main conclusions that I’m talking about is the mainstream consensus outlined by the IPCC and supported by every major academy of science in the world and virtually every scientist publishing research on the matter. The consensus is that human activity is responsible for recent climate change, that this climate change has adverse effects, and that the effects are going to worsen if we continue down the “business as usual” path. That’s settled, no question about it. I would like to leave the quibbling over minor uncertainties, model improvements, and further refinement of the theory to the more capable scientists who publish legitimate research in the technical literature. I find myself, however, having to defend against the main conclusions of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, because people find opportunity to attack it whenever it becomes politically convenient. That’s essentially what we call partisanship (i.e. hackery). These people like to pretend they are engaging in some sort of scientific inquiry, so label themselves “skeptics.” But we know this is not true—the real skeptics (e.g. Lindzen) are few and far between—so I label them “septics,” borrowing the term from William Connolley, who explains the meaning on his blog.

Again, we find the septics at the SCSU Scholars blog making a bunch of ado, in their regular fashion. But about what? Essentially, nothing. Dr. Banaian, professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, using a satirist’s Web site for reference (though, be careful in pointing out the fact, or you’ll be accused of ad hominems), complains about the use of principal components analysis (PCA)—a statistical procedure used in the analysis of data—in a 1998 paper written by Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes (hereafter referred to as Mann et al.). The problem for Dr. Banaian lies in the fact that, as he explains it, “PCA is a technique that, in the social sciences, has been found to be highly sensitive to the inclusions of new proxies.” This might be true, in part, he says, in the natural sciences, but he’s not really sure, probably, in part, because he hasn’t read about it. That might be a wild supposition, but given that the professor even admits to us that he hasn’t even bothered to read the paper he criticizes, it’s not beyond legitimate possibility. This, he says, “increases my skepticism,” though “septicism” probably would have been more fitting.

I try to point out to the professor that the Mann et al. paper, the basic conclusion of which is that contemporary warming is anomalous (differing from previous warming), is valid and supported by virtually the entire scientific community that’s spoken on the issue, including those scientists who have published criticisms of the Mann et al. paper. Dr. Banaian says Mann et al. are wrong, I say they are correct. I better provide some evidence, right? One might reasonably make that assumption, so I link to a report done by the National Academies of Science (NAS), which concluded, “The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) … that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years … has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence …” Summarizing the report, Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, writes that the the NAS “affirms [the] hockey-stick graph,” while Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a critic and pretty close to being a skeptic himself, writes, “the NAS has rendered a near-complete vindication for the work of Mann et al.” In addition to the NAS report, I linked to two peer-reviewed articles that support Mann et al.‘s use of PCA and the accuracy of their reconstruction of past temperature. The first paper, by Wahl and Amman (2007), is a response to McIntyre (who Dr. Banaian later appeals to) and McKitrick. Wahl and Ammann say, “the Mann et al. reconstruction is robust against the proxy-based criticisms addressed. In particular, reconstructed hemispheric temperatures are demonstrated to be largely unaffected by the use or non-use of PCs to summarize proxy evidence from the data-rich North American region.” Moreover, I provide a link to a blog post written by climate scientists discussing McIntyre and McKitrick (the people the aforementioned satirists relies on) and the various “false claims” they make regarding Mann et al.‘s use of PCA.

Well, one might think this is all well and good. Science, after all, is an objective field in which one can appeal to evidence, and the evidence can be judged on its merits. If someone has a differing point of view, they can provide the scientific evidence to support it. So it would be reasonable to assume that evidence should be welcomed when there’s a contradictory claim. It helps you evaluate the claims being made. But it’s dangerous not to drink the Kool-Aid. The cost of not jumping on the politically-convenient (but scientifically-bankrupt) bandwagon of the septics is that I get derided for posting “a link dump”—because contradictory evidence isn’t welcome. Instead it constitutes “linking dumping” to “the cross-referencing, daisy-chain-refereeing bunch from the Mann gang.” I never link to Mann nor anyone from his “gang,” but these types of facts are not supposed to matter. (Although, even if I had linked to Rutherford et al., which includes Mann, and the defense they provide for the methods used in the Mann et al. paper, so what?) I ordinarily would not think much of this; it’s the typical rhetoric the septic retches up whenever confronted by an “inconvenient truth” (science). The thing is, you don’t typically see the type of anti-intellectualism displayed among self-professed scholars. The septics I usually speak with on a near-daily basis, though their rhetoric is virtually identical, don’t usually come from academia. Perhaps that says something. But when you get accused of being a “pedant” trying to enter “Valhalla,” I think this says something quite serious about the culture of this so-called “skepticism,” which has always had at its roots a derision of science and an acceptance anti-intellectualism. I personally find it to be pretty dangerous.

But let’s say we ignore the rhetoric and accept Dr. Banaian’s argument. Does it mean anything? It means nothing. We’re talking about a 1998 paper that has been updated by the authors and commented on multiple occasions over the years, and further supplemented by numerous, independent research that has all come to the same basic conclusions that Mann et al. came to in their paper. Any suggestion that the Mann et al. paper is crucially relied on to support the basic conclusions made by the IPCC or even that contemporary warming is anomalous is transparently absurd. So even if Mann et al.‘s paper was invalid (though it wasn’t), it says nothing about our understanding of climate reproduction or contemporary warming. The so-called “hockey stick” graph that appears in the Mann et al. paper is but one of many “hockey sticks” that exist in the literature on climate reconstruction. See, for example, this image put together by Robert Rhode; a similar image is found in the IPCC’s latest report (Chp. 6 of the WGI contribution) and elsewhere. Mann et al.’s (1999) graph is the plain blue line in Rhode’s image.

The literature on the issue is robust. Contemporary warming is anomalous—unprecedented within the past 1,000 years. The cause is explained by the theory of anthropogenic climate change. We can and should dismiss the feverish rhetoric as ado about absolutely nothing.

A crime against that which does not exist Saturday, Dec 19 2009 

Global warming is a crime against that which not exist, namely future people. Of course, it is still a crime against people who do exist in the present, e.g. the poor in Bolivia whose glacial water sources are quickly disappearing.

This is a point I just thought about in a discussion about global warming on some other forum. It’s worth mentioning that global warming (read anthropogenic climate change) is a classic example of externalities. Neoclassical economics tells us that when people (which includes corporations) don’t have to pay the price for the consequences of their actions, there is market failure. Resources are not being allocated efficiently—one reason why any claim about markets being efficient should be taken with a grain of salt. For examples, producers of pollution do not take into consideration the harmful effects of pollution—i.e. the true cost of pollution is ignored—and so pollution is overproduced (because the price does not reflect the cost). However, not only is global warming a classic example of market failure, it is the “greatest market failure” ever, in the words of Nicholas Stern:

The science tells us that GHG emissions are an externality; in other words, our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen. It is an externality that goes beyond those of ordinary congestion or pollution, although many of the same economic principles apply for its analysis.

This externality is different in 4 key ways that shape the whole policy story of a rational response. It is: global; long term; involves risks and uncertainties; and potentially involves major and irreversible change.

As it happens, there is a solution to fix the problem of when prices do not reflect true costs. The solution is to make the price reflect cost. In this case, you increase the price. That’s what some people have called the carbon tax (i.e. a Pigouvian tax). The externality goes away and resources are being allocated more efficiently. Now, we know the cost of our pollution and activity on this planet is enormous. It is several magnitudes larger than any cost associated with mitigating it, in fact. The rational human being should therefore be opting to mitigate it. The real question becomes whether or not we’re rational.

But let us think about the four key ways that Stern says global warming is distinct from other typical externalities. It’s global, long-term, risky and involves uncertainties, and is irreversible (within reasonable amounts of time, that is). What this means is that we’re condemning future populations of humans to live with the adverse effects of our actions. When we think about it for just a moment or two, we quickly realize that this is fundamentally wrong. It is morally wrong. Yet, many of these people do not even exist yet. They haven’t been born. At the same time, when they do come into existence, they will have to live in a much worse environment because of the actions we are committing in the present. It is in this sense that we are committing a crime against that which does not yet exist (namely future generations).

This is very peculiar indeed. The non-harm and non-aggression principles of libertarianism tells us not to harm other people. But it says nothing of people who do not exist (in that they have yet to exist). In a sense, I think many people in the present feel undisturbed about the effects of human activity on future generations because it’s a rather intangible idea, somewhat abstract. It’s hard to connect. If we are able to so brazenly ignore the plight of suffering Africans in the present, surely it is almost impossible for us to feel anything for generations of humans who are yet to exist. The effects of what goes on in our neighborhood, our cities, our states, or even our nation are much more immediate than that which goes on halfway around the world. So I think there is a problem of immediacy here. What happens to future generations is not immediate to us. This allows us to do what we do without even so much as batting an eyelid. Again, though, this is because we aren’t having to pay for the costs. Future generations will have to pay for it, and they will pay greatly. This is an externality. We can fix it by making the price of our actions reflect the true cost, and in this way we will also make the problems associated with our actions more immediate to us.

Re: SuperFreakonomics & global warming Sunday, Oct 25 2009 

A little while ago, I wrote about the “the globe is currently cooling” myth, which, unfortunately, was propagated in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s new book, SuperFreakonomics. As I explained earlier, I was big fan of their earlier book, Freakonomics, which is why I was disappointed to learn of their unfortunate mistake. I also linked to two criticisms of Levitt and Dubner’s chapter on global warming (which can be read here). A lot has happened since then.

Most recently, Dr. Levitt wrote a blog post at the Freakonomics blog defending the chapter. Mr. Dubner also wrote a post defending the chapter and going after one of the main criticizers, Joseph Romm. Dr. Romm wrote one of the original critiques (which I linked to in my previous post, along with Dr. Connolley’s), pointing out errors and Levitt and Dubner’s misrepresentation of the main scientist they used for their chapter. The links I’ve just provided here provide plenty of background to the controversy as well links to other posts surrounding the ill-fated chapter, including responses by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, Union of Concerned Scientists, Tim Lambert, Gavin Schmidt of NASA, and plenty others.

The gist of the controversy, from I found sifting through the countless attacks and defenses of the chapter, is that Levitt and Dubner misrepresented Ken Caldeira, the main climate scientist they refer to in their chapter; make several errors in their analysis of the science; and advocate geo-engineering (pumping sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere) as opposed to greenhouse gases reductions as the preferable way to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic global warming. For a more thorough understanding of the controversy, visit some of the links I’ve posted above as well as the links the authors of those posts provide. From my perspective, it seems that Levitt and Dubner have chosen the contrarian position and pushed forward shocking conclusions because, frankly, that’s one way to become bestsellers. Unfortunately, there was a not a lot of room for mistake and errors were certainly made. The barrage of criticism across the Web has been unrelenting as a result.

But what is the core issue, particularly as the book deals with it? The core issue here, as I see it, is the best way to deal with the climate crisis (which everyone agrees exists). Levitt and Dubner advocate geo-engineering as the solution, as a means to reflect sunlight and thus reduce global mean temperatures. They say it is a quick and cheap solution. On the other hand, they disagree with lowering emissions because it is a long and difficult process that could cost what they say is thousands times more than their solution. (Part of the disagreement is that Dr. Caldeira is very much for eliminatation of carbon emissions and supports research into geo-engineering, which is not reflected in the book.) As Dr. Levitt points out, the question they’re answer is, What is the cheapest and fastest way to cool the Earth? He says environmentalists and scientists are asking other questions: “The sorts of questions they tend to ask are ‘What is the “right” amount of carbon to emit?’ or ‘Is it moral for this generation to put carbon into the air when future generations will pay the price?’ or ‘What are the responsibilities of humankind to the planet?’

Is it the case that geo-engineering is the correct solution while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not? It’s doubtful. Dr. Caldeira argues that our emissions are necessarily wrong: “I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies … It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.” So already we see that Dr. Caldeira is very much opposed to greenhouse gas emissions, though SuperFreakonomics claims, “Yet his research tells him carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.” Quite preposterous. Dr. Caldeira continues in his e-mail to Dr. Romm:

I am in favor of fire insurance but I am also against playing with matches while sitting on a keg of gunpowder. I am in favor of research into geoengineering options but I am also against carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon dioxide emissions represent a real threat to humans and natural systems, and I fear we may have already dawdled too long. That is why I want to see research into geoengineering — because the threat posed by CO2 is real and large, not because the threat is imaginary and small.

The problem that Levitt and Dubner fail to account for is that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for many changes besides just temperature increases. That’s why “climate change” is becoming a more popular term than “global warming.” Warming is just one aspect of it. The effects our actions have on climate are broad, including ocean acidification, changes in rainfall patterns, extreme weather events, and so on. While pumping sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere may take care of the temperature problems, it neglects a whole host of issues that are caused by human activity. Furthermore, the proposals Levitt and Dubner make are likely to have their own negative effects as well as technical and strategic issues. Writes Dr. Schmidt, “if the planet was a single column with completely homogeneous properties from the surface to the top of the atmosphere and the only free variable was the surface temperature, it would be fine. Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.” Add to that “unknown unknowns” and it seems the geo-engineering proposal is not the cheap or desirable solution it was made out to be.

What about reducing emissions? Claims Dr. Levitt, “a third problem with reducing carbon emissions, which is that it requires worldwide behavioral change, which will be hard to achieve.” Why is that the case? Mr. Dubner explains, “We discuss how it’s a very hard problem to solve since pollution is an externality – that is, the people who generate pollution generally don’t pay the cost of their actions and therefore don’t have strong incentives to pollute less.” Well then… make them pay the cost of their actions! I wrote earlier that global warming represents the greatest market failure ever. The solution is that you correct for that market failure, meaning people pay for the consequences of their actions. Dr. Stern explains, “People would pay a little more for carbon-intensive goods, but our economies could continue to grow strongly.” Dr. Levitt, I’m sure, knows that behavioral change is not that hard, especially when we realize that people respond to incentives—a core economic principle (and the center of their first book). Right now, the cost of emitting greenhouse gases is far less than the actual cost of doing so, meaning there is little (economic) incentive to stop engaging in carbon-intensive activities. As Dr. Schmidt points out, the problems of lead in gasoline and CFCs in spray cans were solved by increasing the costs of these things, which has led to the elimination of both. Nothing says we can’t do the same for greenhouse gas emissions.

Update: Indeed, Dr. Levitt is fully aware. Here’s a quote from Chapter 3: “People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated — for good or ill — if only you find the right levers.”

Update2: Brian Dupuis has a collection of links that may be helpful in following the controversy.

The greatest market failure ever Sunday, Oct 18 2009 

The story of anthropogenic global warming is a story of “the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

That’s from Sir Nicholas Stern, a British economists at the London School of Economics and the Chief Economist of the World Bank from 2000 to 2003, who authored the Stern Review. The Stern Review is a 2006 report discussing the economics of global warming and is the most thorough and cited report on the subject. The report highlights the grave economic consequences of leaving global warming unabated. On the other hand, Stern said his report is “essentially optimistic.” The Review states that we can curtail the worst consequences of global warming if we act immediately. The longer we wait to take action, however, the costlier it will be in the long run. (In fact, the delays we’ve already been taking have been costing us.) What the report makes abundantly clear is that the cost of mitigating global warming is far exceeded by the costs to the world economy if we should choose to continue “business as usual.” In other words, it makes economic sense to work towards mitigating global warming (if people were rational and self-interested anyway). There is no longer any question that there is a benefit to mitigating global warming. The real question is why we haven’t been working towards that goal.

The existence of global warming highlights the inefficiency of markets. Stern explains:

The science tells us that GHG emissions are an externality; in other words, our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen. It is an externality that goes beyond those of ordinary congestion or pollution, although many of the same economic principles apply for its analysis.

This externality is different in 4 key ways that shape the whole policy story of a rational response. It is: global; long term; involves risks and uncertainties; and potentially involves major and irreversible change.

Further, “If we take no action to control emissions, each tonne of CO2 that we emit now is causing damage worth at least $85 – but these costs are not included when investors and consumers make decisions about how to spend their money.” Curtailing global warming would mean “People would pay a little more for carbon-intensive goods, but our economies could continue to grow strongly.

Explains oilman and adviser for President Bush, Matthew Simmons, “‘A crisis is a problem that was ignored.’ All great crises were ignored until it was too late.” The question now is whether we will wait until it’s too late to take action. I believe it is our moral imperative that we not.

Is it just us, or has it gotten cold in here? Tuesday, Oct 13 2009 

It’s just us.

There is a lot of ado about what the weather has been like since 1998. According to some measurements, 1998 was the warmest year on record (see, e.g., here and here). According to these data, 2005 was the second warmest year on record (by vary narrow margins). According to other data sets, 2005 was the warmest year and 1998 was the second warmest (see, e.g., here). What’s not in dispute is the reason why 1998 was exceptionally hot: it was the same year that there was the strongest El Niño of the 20th century. (El Niño is a weather phenomenon with the ocean and atmosphere linked to periodic warming and La Niña is something similar linked to periodic cooling. See here for more information.)

So why the discrepancies between the data sets? The folks of RealClimate give an explanation here. Essentially, HadCRUT 3V data provided by the Climate Research Unit, which suggests 1998 was the warmest year, has significant gaps in its coverage, particularly over the Arctic where warming has been the most pronounced. When you’re missing data from where temperatures have been increasing the most, your data are going to be skewed. So that data are missing an important data source, which is the Arctic. The scientific literature has made note of this and explains why there are some discrepancies as far as which year was the warmest on record.

The septics (a term I borrow from William M. Connolley — see explanation here), however, maintain that 1998 was definitely the hottest year on record so therefore “global warming has stopped for the past 11 years.” This is such a favorite of theirs that it’s gotten into the mainstream media, which, after all, is interested in sensationalism.

Alas, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner fall for this specious argument in their new book, SuperFreakonomics. I was a big fan of their work in the first book, Freakonomics, which is why I am disappointed to see they’ve ventured into an area neither of them are competently familiar with and get their facts very messed up. The chapter in question can be read here. For some critiques, see here (Dr. Connolley’s) and here (Dr. Romm’s).

Like I said though, it’s a popular argument. For example, in an argument about a post over at the SCSU Scholars blog (click comments), the specious argument came up multiple times as a means to disprove anthropogenic global warming. How can it be, the septics ask, that CO2 has been rising but temperatures have not since 1998 (again, assuming 2005 was not the warmest year because that would hurt their argument)? It’s a classic case of cherry picking data. If this year isn’t the warmest year, the septic will pick the previous record and ask why the Earth is cooling.

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. First of all, climate is considered weather averaged over a 30-year period. Not 11 years, but 30 years (as a general rule). So, yes, they’re cherry picking. And it’s not like this is anything abnormal. Year-to-year variation is to be expected (and predicted in the models, contrary to some claims). When we say that temperature will increase in the long term, no one is claiming that they will go up in a straight line, yet this is what the septics are expecting when they make this argument. In reality, however, long-term upward trends are observable even when there are year-to-year natural variations. The IPCC predicts .11 to .64 °C temperature increases per decade during the 21st century. This is consistent with the past decade:


The graph above is annual global mean surface temperature (land and ocean) anomalies in degrees centigrade with a 1951-1980 base using this data set provided by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In more ordinary language, it’s a graph of temperature changes from 1980 until 2008. The black line is the 25-year trend line. The two shorter lines are 10-year trend lines. The most recent decadal trend (1999-2008) is the yellow one showing a 0.19 ºC per decade trend, consistent with the IPCC’s range.

So what does 1998 tell us about the overall trend in temperatures? Not a lot. If anything, it shows that temperatures have been steadily increasing to new extremes since the Industrial Revolution, when humans began to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at massive and unprecedented levels. What we have seen since 1998 is consistent with the anthropogenic model of global warming (see, e.g., my graph above, here, here, and here).

Kofi Annan @ Mac Wednesday, May 20 2009 

Macalester College hosted Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. The event was sponsored by the university’s Institute for Global Citizenship. The university unraveled a sculpture of Annan as a part of the opening of their new Markim Hall, the $7.5 million building meant to “exceed the sustainability requirements of LEED Platinum certification.” Annan, who got his bachelors in economics at the university in 1961, gave a short speech as part of the unveiling of the bust and the opening of Markim Hall.

The speech itself was short. He stressed the point that we are all a part of a global village, evidenced by the ongoing global economic and financial crisis. He also stated climate change is a real danger, that we should work together to stop it, and that the green Markim Hall is a step in that direction. Finally, he suggested students (there were none there, alas) should become involved in their local communities, as that is the beginning to bring about change in the world. I can help but agree with him on all points.

More denialism Tuesday, Apr 14 2009 

Global warming denialism is still strong, particularly by those on the right for some reason. Perhaps it’s because they adhere to the idea that if we want to solve this problem, it’s going to hurt and we can’t have that happen. Of course, they’re wrong on that point. (Check out some of Amory Lovins’ work, for example.) They hate the answer, so they hate the theory. Never mind they’ve got the answer completely misconstrued–attacking a theory because you disagree with its result is not the way to go. You should be critical of the basis of the theory. Unfortunately, this is lacking in the “debate” on global warming.

Some in St. Cloud still seem to be fascinated with the subject after Bachmann’s recent “visit” to campus. This is good, but they’re still attacking the theory because they disagree with what it says, not the scientific basis for it. See, for example, this recent post by King Banaian, an SCSU economics professor and chairman of the department. There’s an interesting discussion taking place there, but let’s evaluate some of the claims.

The Earth’s climate is driven by the receipt and redistribution of solar energy. Despite this crucial relationship, the sun tends to be brushed aside as the most important driver of climate. Calculations on supercomputers are primitive compared with the complex dynamism of the Earth’s climate and ignore the crucial relationship between climate and solar energy.

Yes, of course; the sun is an important driver of climate, but it is not by any means the only driver. Greenhouse gases, for example, also play a crucial role in the climate. So it’s important to look at all the meaningful forcings. And, as it happens, scientists have. The journalist (no wonder) here is flatly incorrect; solar variation has been accounted for in the models. What we find is that solar irradiance had a radiative forcing of .12 W/m^2 (watts per square meter) in 2005. What this means is that it does have a positive radiative forcing (increases temperatures), but it is small, especially when we compare it to human activities (emitting CO2 and methane, land use, etc.), which has a radiative forcing of 1.6 W/m^2. So, clearly, human’s impact on climate is much more profound than that of solar variation.

“To reduce modern climate change to one variable, CO2, or a small proportion of one variable – human-induced CO2 – is not science. To try to predict the future based on just one variable (CO2) in extraordinarily complex natural systems is folly. Yet when astronomers have the temerity to show that climate is driven by solar activities rather than CO2 emissions, they are dismissed as dinosaurs undertaking the methods of old-fashioned science.”

Again, it’s not being reduced to one variable. Many are being accounted for, including solar variation. “Ah, but CO2 doesn’t account for much of the atmosphere, and certainly only a tiny amount is human-induced, so that can’t be the answer.” Wrong. It’s true that human-caused CO2 makes up a small amount of the atmosphere. But that’s not the point at all. Ice core data has shown that CO2 levels are higher now than they have been for at least 650,000 years; other evidence (see Pearson and Palmer, 2000, for example) suggests it may have been on the magnitude of 20 million years. The rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases since the start of the Industrial Revolution is unambiguous. (And CO2 levels keep going up, and are expected to for a long time.) It’s important to keep in mind that CO2 has a long atmospheric lifetime (about 100 years–water vapor’s is about 10 days). So this means that humans are causing greenhouse gases to increase at a rate faster than carbon sinks can accommodate, which simply means temperature is going to rise. The radiative properties of greenhouses gases, known for over a 100 years now, explains this very well.

Over time, the history of CO2 content in the atmosphere has been far higher than at present for most of time. Atmospheric CO2 follows temperature rise. It does not create a temperature rise. CO2 is not a pollutant. Global warming and a high CO2 content bring prosperity and longer life.

I’ve addressed the “CO2 follows temperature rise” in an earlier post here. The argument that CO2 is not a pollutant and that increasing CO2 is actually a good thing are interesting ones. Given all the negative impacts that global warming is expected to bring or, indeed, has already brought about, it’s hard to imagine how CO2 increases could be beneficial. One argument is that plants love CO2, so production will increase. This is a seriously strained argument. New Scientist does a good enough job at debunking this myth.

Michelle Bachmann, Chris Horner, and Alfred Pekarek, oh my! Thursday, Apr 9 2009 

Today, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann paid a visit to SCSU. She represents (in one way, at least) Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District, which includes St. Cloud. Her ridiculous and frankly embarrassing statements made time again in public don’t really merit repeating here. Instead, I want to focus mostly on the claims that Chris Horner made today, presenting his case against cap and trade and the scientific consensus on global warming. He was brought along as a speaker by Congresswoman Bachmann, because she was so impressed with his rhetoric that he displayed in Washington a few weeks ago. Congresswoman Bachmann didn’t have much to say, except for some prepared remarks that were brief.

So, who then is Horner? He is an attorney and fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He’s written a few partisan books, talked a lot, etc. There was also Alfred Pekarek, an SCSU assistant professor in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department who studies mostly rocks. But he’s an ardent global warming denier who has happened to write some nonsense for the AAPG. (The AAPG, in 2007, became the last major scientific organization to affirm human’s role in global warming, after falling out of line with the scientists who work with them.) Of course, Dr. Pekarek has published no peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject, but he was mostly there as a figurehead anyway. Horner did all the talking. So what did Horner have to say?

The topic of the discussion was cap and trade, whereby the government sets a cap for carbon emissions and companies are given allowances for polluting so much. If you fall below this limit, you can trade (sell) your allowances to other companies that don’t meet this limit. The idea is that the free market will take over and corporations will stop polluting the air. Quite frankly, I don’t care for cap and trade, and I think it’s a stupid idea. It doesn’t work and so emissions don’t go down. That automatically eliminates it as any solution. This was part of Horner’s argument too, but mostly he was worried about it being anti-competitive, against the consumer, big interests, etc. That’s all well and fine, I don’t care to debate him on that issue since it doesn’t interest me (I’ve already stated it’s not a solution).

However, in what could be called the second part of his presentation, which was nominally called a question-and-answer session, Horner went on about the perceived lies in the global warming debate, though it isn’t much of a debate anymore. Horner really focused on three main things in his drivel, which, by now, has become old, tired, and thoroughly refuted: The IPCC sham, historical temperature record, and the relationship between solar forcing and temperature.

Horner took issue with the claim that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is made up of over 2,000 scientists who author their authoritative assessment reports. But the IPCC only claims to have 450 lead authors, not over 2,000, and 800 contributing authors. Furthermore, they release four reports (one of which is a synthesis of the other three). Only one deals with the actual physical basis for global warming, which is the Working Group I report. The IPCC claims this report was made by some 600 authors (lead and contributing) and reviewed by over “620 expert reviewers.” In its annex (PDF) they list all of their authors and their reviewers for that report. Wikipedia will actually make it easier for you, as it has a list of the contributors and their roles. Overwhelmingly these contributors come from the field of climatology or atmospheric sciences. That’s certainly a lot more than the Oregon Petition can say. (Never mind that every major national science academy in the world accepts the IPCC’s conclusions as the consensus on global warming.)

One thing Horner could not stop repeating is that in the historical temperature record, temperatures led CO2 emissions. What this means is that the the Earth saw a temperature increase before there was a CO2 increase (so temperature drove CO2 to go up, not the other way around), which Horner then construed to mean that CO2 could not be possibly be causing the current global warming. Well, of course, Horner is dead wrong. It is true that in the historical temperature record going back 600,000 years, CO2 lags behind temperature increases by about 200 to 1,000 years. This is because temperature increases cause increases in CO2, and this CO2 in turn causes a temperature increase (this is called a positive feedback in the technical literature). And we actually have a pretty good understanding of what caused these temperature to go up, which is something called orbital forcings, meaning small changes in the Earth’s orbit (Milankovitch cycles) change how much sunlight hits the planet, one of the reasons for ice ages and glaciations. This increased the CO2 in the atmosphere (by mechanisms I don’t care to go in detail about here), and after a certain period of time the CO2 took over as the main contributor to the temperature increases. (That is, temperature increased for some 5,000 years, only during 800 or so of which temperature led CO2; CO2 caused the other 4,200 years of warming.) That’s what the ice core record shows. So it’s very clear, still, that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that causes temperature to go up. The climate record shows this. But it’s also elementary physics and chemistry. The radiative properties of CO2 have been known for over 100 years. That there was a lag in the historical record in no way contradicts our understanding of how CO2 affects temperature, and it is this understanding that we use to explain the current global warming. For the sake of brevity, this post by RealClimate explains quite well the relationship between human activity and CO2 increases, and how it’s causing current global warming.

Finally, Horner points to the Sun as the main contributor to global warming. He says the Sun’s output matches quite well with variations in temperature. Again, this is flatly incorrect. A 2006 paper published in Nature by Foukal et al. showed that the Sun’s brightness has not increased over the past 1,000 years and that it has, in fact, contributed very little to the current global warming. When you look at recent solar variation, it doesn’t even come close to fitting the temperature record. The most liberal numbers, by Scafetta and West, suggest the Sun has contributed some 45 to 50 percent of the temperature increase between 1900 and 2000, and only 25 to 30 percent between 1980 and 2000. Likewise, the IPCC has found that the Sun slightly contributed to the increase in temperature between 1750 and 1950, but little after that. So when you take the Sun out of the equation, you simply cannot explain current warming.

Horner did address several other points, but this post is already getting quite long. I’d be glad to address them some other time. Suffice it say Horner is way off base with the scientific community, as are Congresswoman Bachmann and Dr. Pekarek. Instead, they wish to politicize the issue so they can propagandize and use all sort of rhetoric to win over gullible partisans. What we should do is focus on the science, and the peer-reviewed published literature is unequivocal on it stance on anthropogenic global warming.


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