My recent post, “What if They Are Wrong,” explored the possibility that human-generated CO2 will be determined, after all is said and done, to have no appreciable affect on climate. The post generated a lot of discussion. I want to follow up on some of that discussion with this brief post.
CO2 is, after all, a trace gas and humanity has added to it a trace amount. An essential requirement that it have a major influence on our climate is a set of feedback mechanisms that magnify its effect. Most notably, for CO2 increase to have any seriously dangerous ramifications for human life it is necessary that a positive and significant feedback exist between the CO2 abundance in the atmosphere and the water abundance. This feedback loop, its sign and its magnitude, are seriously in question.
To take one example, it is well-established that water vapor in the upper troposhpere and lower stratosphere (the region known as the “tropopause”) has been decreasing for the last ten years. This was not only not predicted by climatological computer models, it has not yet been explained by those models. Speculations as to the origin of this drying out include an unexpectedly large rise from the 1998 El Nino (which is only now drying out) to a decrease in the atmospheric content of methane, another greenhouse gas, over the past decade or more. Alas, the decrease of the methane is also not explained.
A short but well-presented description of this discrepancy was given almost exactly two years ago in Scientific American (hardly a global warming skeptic publication!). Sci. Am. quotes one of the authors of the original (Science Magazine) study thusly:
“We found that there was a surface temperature impact due to changes in water vapor in a fairly narrow region of the stratosphere,” explains research meteorologist Karen Rosenlof of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Aeronomy Laboratory, one of the authors of the study. “The reason for the water vapor change is the temperature drop at the interface between the troposphere and the stratosphere over the tropics. What we don’t know is why the temperature dropped.”
[Previously I omitted the link to the above-quoted Scientific American article. It can be found here. Sorry for the oversight].
Note that the researchers in this publication are by no means heretics in the scientific establishment. They make genuine efforts to explain these findings. But the results are still a mystery.
All told, stratospheric water vapor declined by 10 percent since 2000, based on satellite and balloon measurements, yet that was enough to appreciably affect temperatures at ground level according to climate models. “Reduce the water vapor and you have less long-wave radiation coming back down to warm the troposphere,” Rosenlof says. Conversely, an apparent increase in water vapor in this region in the 1980s and 1990s exacerbated global warming.
And, as noted above, the authors considered the influence of methane on the atmospheric water:
Of course, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is also affected by another potent greenhouse gas—methane—which has unexpectedly failed to increase in recent years. “The other influence is methane, which breaks down into two water molecules and CO2 in the stratosphere,” explains climate scientist Drew Shindell of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). “Methane’s growth rate has dropped, so it’ll have become a weaker source of stratospheric water, but we don’t fully understand why its concentrations have not increased as rapidly in recent years as they did for the previous several decades.”
As a producer of greenhouse heating, methane is typically considered to be about twenty times as effective, molecule-for-molecule, as CO2.
The main issue I am raising is not that the scientists who are at the front line of this research are blind or bellicose – not that they are unscrupulous or fraudulent. Most of the scientists working in the field are not trying to push an ideological position but are genuinely trying to get at the truth. If they can be accused of any moral failing, it is simply the tendencey to go with the flow when it comes to writing grant proposals and alluding to the possibility of global warming as a justification for supporting their research. Nothing horrible about that.
That does not say that there are not a few at the top and at the edges who are true believers – who think that behaving as deceivers is ethically the right thing to do given the gravity of the threat (that they perceive) and the ignorance of the masses to that threat (as they perceive).
Sound science will, unimpeded by the hysterics, lead to sensible public policy. It is my belief that the final conclusion will be that CO2 produced by humanity will be found to be of only minor importance for global climate and that it will be heavily outweighed by exchange of heat with oceans of evolving temperature and other factors such as solar-determined cloud formation. But I am open to evidence and, alas, a lot of global warming hysterics in the scientific community (and especially in the non-scientific, political community) have their ears stopped with gobs of wax.
I want to finish this post with a reference to a significant letter that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago. Signed by sixteen (sober) scientists, this letter lays out the case against hysteria better than I can and I urge the worshipers in the Church of the Green to read it and ponder it deeply. They make reference to Yale economist William Nordhaus who, while simply accepting the scientific conclusions of the IPCC uncritically, nevertheless concludes that the radical policies of the Kyoto accord, which calls for dramatic limitations on CO2 emissions in the west, are counter-productive to the extent that they undermine the health of our economy and its capacity to deal with climate problems in the future. The WSJ article states:
A recent study of a wide variety of policy options by Yale economist William Nordhaus showed that nearly the highest benefit-to-cost ratio is achieved for a policy that allows 50 more years of economic growth unimpeded by greenhouse gas controls.
In conclusion, global warming is an unchallengeable “consensus” only among those who deeply yearn to save the planet. The conviction of those politicians and activists and (few) scientists that debate is destructive is itself destructive. It arises from the dungeons and dragons psychodrama going on in the minds of those deluded saints – where they embody themselves as the White Wizards and the skeptics as the Morlocks.
The appropriate role for conservatives is to oppose the bias of hysteria and the “cautionary principle;” to demand every essential cost-benefit analysis and, understanding the daydreams of the holy, to insist that progress comes by first placing our feet upon the ground.