Do we have to visit the climate again?
I found it quite pleasant to watch “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Al Gore was passionate and warm in his presentation.  There was one thing, I may have mentioned, that troubled me some.  He had, if you remember, this magnificent graph of temperature and CO2 going back for a very long time.  Now I am all about graphs.  I actually prefer numbers, and ideally any graph for me should include the numerical data points so I can do calculations if the spirit moves me.  But graphs are good.

Alas, although we got a fairly good look at the graph he seemed to spend more time than I would have wished standing in front of it radiating charisma but obscuring the data.  I gained the distinct impression that what the graph actually showed was that first temperature went up, followed by CO2.  This did not support his thesis, which was that CO2 was causing global warming and would continue to cause more.  It was more suggestive that global warming was causing the CO2 to go up.

Let me pause and assure you that I firmly believe in global warming.  I have known since childhood that glaciers are retreating.  That has always rather saddened me.  Glaciers are magnificent structures.  I like pictures of them, although my enthusiasm has never drawn me to explore one.  Well if glaciers are melting, then at one time there were more of them and at some time there will be less.  I think the Germans introduced the word “Icezeit,” what we call Ice Age.  Somehow it seemed to suggest there was a time for great physical courage and effort, sort of like the Bronze Age, only more so.  If there was an Ice Age, then global warming must be going on. 

My own extrapolation is, of course, that an Ice Age could recur as a result of global warming, but the warming seems to be undeniable.

The second thing I should assure you of is that, yes, CO2 can cause the atmosphere to warm.  Most of the energy from the sun comes in the form of light, which is why we have developed to exploit it for vision, and CO2 is quite transparent to light.  But it also absorbs and reemits infra red radiation.  That means the atmosphere at some level must be better able to radiate heat with higher CO2.  Indeed the experts tell us that the temperature at low altitude is going up but at high altitude is going down; that is what one would expect.  So it all makes sense.  Admittedly I am impressed with how dirty the sky seems compared to a long time ago, and how much dirtier glaciers seem, both of which obviously contribute to global warming, and recent work seems to support a larger influence by filth than previously acknowledged. 

It turns out that there is some debate on whether warming precedes or follows CO2 rise.  (Edward J. Brook Leads and Lags at the End of the Last Ice Age SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 6123 March 1, 2013 page 1042 and F. Parrenin et al. Synchronous Change of Atmospheric C02 and Antarctic Temperature During the Last Deglacial Warming page 1060 of the same issue) The recent work led by Parrenin suggests that the gas and the temperature track each other so closely that it is not possible to be sure which actually leads.  But according to data up until now temperature has led gas by a couple of centuries or more.


In other words for many years the consensus of experts has been that the gas caused the warming, but all their data was the other way around.  I feel a bit betrayed.  Sure we need to do what we can to limit the CO2 we are causing to be released above any beyond what would be going on anyway.  But we really don’t need to wallow in guilt about it a lot. 

You see if the warming is increasing the gas it could be happening at very close to the same time.  Maybe increased temperature drives gas out of the ocean.  When I look around for active carbon I see a lot of vegetation, most of it cycling but some accumulating over multiple generations of the lives of the plants.  Cycling means going back to CO2.  If the plant is eaten, then it goes back very quickly.  If it falls to the ground and must await bacterial decay, that should take some time.  And that decay will happen faster if things are warmer.  Relevant measurements are indeed made, but I know of nobody who has proposed just what the delay is averaging vegetation worldwide and how that delay might change with temperature.  Until that is pressed against my nose I shall believe warmer means wetter and wetter plus warmer means rotting faster.  The delay should not be that great, but there must be a lot of stuff lying around and the decay should be making up for lost time.  That should happen as soon as it gets warm.

But if the gas accumulation is coming first, then there really ought to be a delay.  There must be a sort of thermal inertia to the earth’s temperature. 

You would think they would have pointed this out to us.

It seems to me that somebody up there is in the business of reassuring us about things that cannot be prevented.  For instance I once saw it calculated that on average more life dies from asteroid and comet strikes than from airplane accidents. That’s because rare events have produced such enormous catastrophes.  But by and large the word is not to worry about things hitting the earth.  As it becomes more plausible that we can detect and divert such a threat, you can expect us to hear more about how dangerous it is. 

War, of course, is the ultimate avoidable catastrophe.  It’s not something the universe does to us.  It is strictly something we do to ourselves.  And indeed it gets a lot of press.

Let me try to hook the issue of war and the issue of global warming together.  First let me say that there are odious governments in the world.  It is very hard to have much sympathy for the government of North Korea.  On one side they are bounded by China and on the other by South Korea.  Both of those two counties over recent decades have undergone spectacular economic growth.  I am less an enthusiast than most for endless economic expansion.  There are limits both to how much wealth it takes to maximize your happiness and how much wealth the earth can sustainably yield.  But they are so poor as to be suffering in North Korea.  And the only thing that keeps them from following in the path of their neighbors is their government. 

And now, in what appears to be an act of utter madness, the North Korean government has threatened to launch a nuclear strike against the United States.  There are some choices that are bad.  Leaping into the cage of a polar bear is one.  Sticking your head in the mouth of a tiger has to be one.  Getting involved in a land war in Asia is right up there.  And attacking the United States has to be an obvious one.  Even talking about it is begging for annihilation of the leadership. 

So what has this unhappy state done to prepare for their threat?  Well they have launched some rockets.  They have set off a couple of nuclear devices.  And I think one can rest assured they have built bunkers to protect the privileged few.

Bunkers are made of concrete.  Concrete is made with cement.  And that produces CO2, about 5% of all the CO2 humanity releases.  (Ivan Amato Concrete Solutions NATURE vol. 494 no. 3437 February 21. 2013 page 300) That’s a lot, but that’s just what they are telling us about.  Rule number one in building a bunker is not to tell anybody about it.  Given the number of paranoid and privileged powerful people in the world, how much of their resources (our resources) get diverted into inherently useless underground hidey holes?  Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is “a lot.” 

Of course I see no chance of reining things in along those lines. 

I doubt those bunkers will be much use if our extravagance precipitates a new ice age.  The bunker might hold out, but the air would run out under a mile thick grinding glacier.

So worry about this: the climate changes back and forth between hot and cold like a playground swing.  We are now warming, probably as part of the natural cycle.  We are adding to the warming.  That means the next cold, dry, dusty ice age should come sooner, more abruptly and be more severe than it would have otherwise. 

I am guessing there have been 66 visitors in the past month.

Home page.