Thursday, January 8, 2015

Climate Science: The “pause”, the “warmest year”, the “picnic” and where do we go from here?

Those of you who have been following me from the beginning know that this is not a climate science blog. To this point most of my posts have involved energy use, energy supply and renewable energy.  I started this blog because of an interest in the battles in my home province of British Columbia over how (and whether) we should be transporting oil (and bitumen). I acknowledged that in order for our system to continue we need to maintain a supply of hydrocarbons for industrial and energy uses and my primary concerns were the environmental consequences of differing modes of transporting those hydrocarbons to market. I, personally, maintain a strong interest in weaning our system off fossil fuels. Firstly, because fossil fuels represent too valuable a resource to waste as energy sources when alternatives exist and secondly because while I am a “lukewamer”, I acknowledge that I might be wrong. If we can come up with a way to reduce our carbon footprint without starving or freezing a substantial proportion of our population then that would seem to be a win-win scenario. 

My blog evolved through online discussions with what I describe as “science-blind” activists who informed me that renewable energy sources represented a magic bullet. In my next posts, I described the strengths, and particularly the concerns, associated with various renewable energy technologies. My intention was to explain why these technologies don’t actually represent magic bullets. I pointed out that political intransigence is strangling geothermal power in BC. That by out-sourcing our rare earth metal needs we were failing in our global environmental responsibilities. That in some cases biofuels might actually be worse for the environment than fossil fuels.  My emphasis has been to demonstrate that in order to advance the development of renewable energies we need to make compromises. 

My blog was initially intended to serve as a sounding board and an information hub to encourage discussion and that being said I figure I should continue the task, this time by clarifying some further misconceptions about the two most popular “memes” in the climate debate:  the “pause” and the “warmest year”. What a lot of my non-climate science readers may not understand is that these two climate memes are not mutually exclusive, both can be, and appear to be, applicable at the same time. As an analogy imagine humanity is my family having a picnic in a northern park. Anthropogenic global warming meanwhile is a very large dog that my family sees walking towards the picnic. The family watches the dog as it advances but after a while the dog appears to stop, lay down and appears to take a nap. The dog is no longer moving towards us, he has “paused” his advance. However, the dog is much closer to us than before, in fact he is the “closest” (warmest year) to us he has ever been.

Now my family is a bit of a mixed bag, which is why I chose this analogy. My eldest daughter is terrified of dogs so at this point she would be staring at the dog in horror sure that any second it was going to wake with a start and come tearing at her with the sole intention of ripping her to pieces. In this case she is our “alarmist”. My younger daughter is indifferent to dogs and as long as she has a doll in her hands would not even notice the dog. She also doesn’t really care what goes on in the minds of dogs and would assume that when the dog wakes up it will do what it wants and most likely wander away. In this analogy she is our “sceptic” (Author’s note, I despise the term denier due to its obvious link to Holocaust denial and so in this analogy use the term sceptic for people who do not accept the premise of AGW). My son recognizes that dogs will swipe food from picnics but he also knows that most dogs are trained and he is sure he can handle the dog, should it wake up, and continue its advance. The dog will probably end up costing us some sandwiches and will want a place on our blanket but a little dog fur won’t ruin his day and he is willing to give up some food rather than abandoning a perfectly good picnic. He is our lukewarmer (not the perfect analogy but play along).  My wife knows a lot about dogs. She knows which breeds are more dangerous than others and that some dogs are good some dogs are bad. She got a good enough view to see that it was a big dog and figures it is some form of husky-mix but knows that we are camping in an area frequented by wolves. She thinks that at best this dog is going to ruin our picnic (since it has already terrified one child) and at worst (if it is a wolf) it could seriously hurt or kill a family member. That makes her our “warmist”. For the purpose of this scenario I end up representing the policy-maker. I was too busy setting up the picnic to look around and so did not notice as the dog was approaching and can only see what appears to be a bundle of fur asleep in the grass.

So what do I do? My eldest daughter thinks we have a dire-wolf on our hands and that we should abandon everything and run for our lives even if it means leaving our picnic (and frankly her sister) behind in the rush. My younger daughter thinks we are wasting her time and that she would really like a glass of milk. My son says that it is not a big deal, the dog could sleep all day or even if it wakes up we can mitigate the problem by offering the dog a sandwich and adapt to having it around. My wife is pretty unhappy that we are ignoring her concerns. Things are already problematic (as we have a terrified daughter ruining the picnic) and if the dog does wake and it is hungry then at best it is going to want a lot more than a sandwich and if it is a wolf then we are in serious trouble. As a policy-maker I can’t ignore a terrified child but getting this picnic set up took a lot of planning and preparation and eventually everyone is going to need to eat.  I certainly can’t ignore the person most able to judge the risks (my wife) but I also know that my son has a way with dogs. Moreover, there is a chance that if it sleeps long enough we can have our meal, clean up and be on our way before it becomes an issue? So I ask again what am I to do?

So if you have read this far, I’m going to guess that you think I have the answer to this problem. Unfortunately, I do not. Like many observers the only thing I know for sure is that the two extreme choices are likely the most wrong. The suggestion of the activists, like, that we essentially abandon fossil fuels immediately will cause real, immediate harm to real people both in the developed and the developing world and will cause untold harm to our natural environment. The suggestion that we ignore the problem is not an option, at least for me. My belief that Tyndall gases have an effect on the environment forces me to recognize that a laissez-faire attitude won’t cut it as well. As an observer of policy and politics, I can also suggest that any heavy-handed program run by national governments (or worse yet by pan-governmental organizations) will fail. I really think this is a “think globally act locally” sort of problem. The free market needs to be involved with incentives from government but government by decree will not get the job done.

In BC, I see us moving towards an emphasis on more geothermal and run-of-the-river power projects while using monies from our existing carbon tax to fund research into ways to move our vehicle fleets off fossil fuels.  I leave it up to my economist friends to tell me if there is a method better than a carbon tax to acknowledge the environmental costs that our carbon-dominated energy places on our planet. In other parts of the world the mix will likely include more solar and nuclear energy (an energy source I feel has been unfairly maligned). In the transition, I ask readers not to ignore the costs of renewable to the environment. Most importantly, I implore readers not to off-shore the environmental costs of your energy needs onto economies and environments that cannot handle those costs. If you want renewable energy technologies then it is contingent on you to take on the environmental challenges associated with all phases of the energy generation process, from mining and refining the natural resources to building and housing the generation units. We live on one planet and cannot destroy one part of the planet (and its peoples) in order to make it easier on ourselves.


  1. I like this post. It sure sounds like a reasonable approach. But I´m not sure those of use who sit in the middle ground get paid that much attention. I also see a plus if we can reduce fossil fuel consumption because we are running out of the stuff. I realize people tend to be very optimistic about this issue when they see prices as low as they are now, but the reality they can´t see is really ugly.

  2. A well-crafted analogy. I'd recommend a few alterations, though.

    1) When you set up the picnic in the first place, you ignored the sign "No Picnics! Beware of hungry wolves!"

    2) Your sister is along, who hates your wife. She loves dessert and is determined to eat every crumb. She constantly says things to you and your kids to undermine your wife's credibility, and interrupts your wife every time she tries to make a point. She also insists that the Beware of Wolves sign was set up by your wife to deliberately mess up the picnic, and has some weirdly implausible story about how your wife contrived to do that.

    3) Your wife is convinced it's a wolf, and is now concerned that the entire wolfpack may be converging on your picnic site.

    4) The wolf is not so much napping as keeping its distance and prowling.

  3. Michael, when we started setting up the picnic (the start of the industrial revolution somewhere before 1830), John Tyndall was a babe in arms and still 30 years away from identifying Tyndall gases and Svante Arrhenius was 30 years from being born. Through the early part of the 20th Century (when most of the observed heating was actually taking place) the link between Tyndall gases and climate change was known to a mere handful of people who had studied enough Chemistry to understand the concepts. It was only in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the literature started coming out that caused science in general to start to recognizing the problem and not until the late 1980s that more than a handful of experts thought it was going to be a serious issue. By that time our dependence on fossil fuels to maintain our civilization (quality of life) was almost 150 years old?

  4. It doesn't pay to quibble about details - it's just an analogy.

    Isaac Asimov started warning about "the greenhouse effect" in 1955. Stephen Schneider had a huge dome of curly hair when he said to Johnny Carson "if we're still using fossil fuels by 2050 we'll be in big trouble".

    By 1992 there was a global consensus of governments that Something Must Be Done.

    And nothing has been done, unless you call economies getting more and more entrenched in fossil fuels, and the underlying science in being more and more undermined in the public perception doing something.

    There's been plenty of time to pack up the baskets and go elsewhere. There isn't much time anymore.

  5. The analogy works for the pause vs. the warmest year but as Dr. Tobis’s comment illustrates it has a problem in a broader sense. I think there is a problem with the analogy because it doesn’t cover both parts of the climate policy issue appropriately. The two parts of climate policy are: is there a problem and what are you going to do about it.

    I think your analogy covers the problem component well but the point that you and I understand that the existing solutions to reduce our carbon footprint likely will starve or freeze a substantial proportion of our population isn’t covered as well. The result is Dr Tobis gets to say that something must be done and there isn’t much time anymore because the analogy solution is just pack up the baskets and go elsewhere.

    So the analogy has to incorporate risks of moving elsewhere with the potential for a worse or at least as bad an outcome than the dog coming to the picnic for it to be a good analogy. While not perfect how about the option to leave is limited because the dog is blocking the way you came in and the only way out is on a narrow path hacked into a cliff face where the chances of falling off are high?

    Dr Tobis, what if packing up and leaving is as big a risk as climate change? Please read all of our host’s writings on the problems getting off fossil fuels. I think he has made some convincing arguments that today’s touted “solutions” are significantly more expensive which will have impacts to the poor and may have a host of unintended consequences that could be worse than climate change.

  6. He could be just a friendly dog, watching for wolves, and willing to accepts scraps for his efforts. With luck, he may follow you home and help protect your family; maybe even keep your little one warm

  7. You shouldn't fear all wolf-like critters. ;<)