Climate Change Science

To act, or not to act, and if one acts what should one do, and if no action is desired on what basis is such a decision reached.

Science is a gradual process and not one that claims 100% knowledge at any point in time and more importantly not about likely consequences – political or otherwise. It is also a cautious disciplined approach, a skeptical approach, one where consensus can be upset at any time by a new discovery. Importantly, it is a process which is long term, statistical based decisions made in haste, on poor samples are eschewed, but it is true that Scientists champion causes to promote their tenure and get funding, and once the scientific discoveries enter the political domain the idea of a dispassionate assessment is lost.

When scientist looks at the carbon atom – to pick one of the so called green-house gases – it is found to absorb earths radiation coming back off the earth’s surface otherwise destined for space, hence trapping heat which leads to warming, but good aspects of light rays are not reflected back into the atmosphere rather these pass through to hit earth’s surface, some is absorbed hence increasing temperature.  Remember that light from the Sun is not a single ray, it is made up a wide spectrum, in effect some are good and some are bad, the earth’s atmosphere filters the good and reflects the bad.

Interestingly when scientist look at water vapor H2O it is found that this leads to clouds which reflect sunlight, as do the oceans, but humidity absorbs radiation reflected from earth’s surface, and there is the heat transfer caused during evaporation.

If warming happens it is likely to increase humidity, which will lead to more clouds and more rain brought about in part by ice caps melting releasing stored water from ice – the amount of water is fixed, it is just stored in different ways –the overall heating will increase rainfall in some areas but not others. The result will be increased sea water levels, rain patterns will change. Water vapor is the cause of thunder storms as it changes form via evaporation and hence releases energy, which also warms. This is why it is thought there will be an increase in violent forms of weather.

The amount of carbon is fixed or balanced as well, it is just stored in different forms, the amount in the atmosphere is increasing, past the magic number of 350ppm , the historic maximum reached before (at least what can be worked out)– less than 1% of the total volume of the atmosphere – has now been exceeded. The atmosphere is made up of Nitrogen (78%) and Oxygen (20%) , so green house gases represent less than 2%.. The atmospheric layers play the vital role of reflecting dangerous rays of the spectrum in sunlight – the ozone layer being one form of reflective protection, which science showed was diminishing as gases in spray cans started to accumulate and began to disperse the ozone level to create holes, like the one over Southern Australia, interestingly this science was not disputed, action taken work wide and the trend mitigated.

There is a delicate balance in this over all climate system (and sub-systems of the water cycle and carbon storage) where small changes, when modeled, seem to have the potential for much larger disproportionate effects e.g. warming and changes to climate. But it is unclear the exact nature of what will happen with real mother earth, for instance the increase in clouds may help to temper warming by reflecting sunlight, in fact if there was some catastrophe e.g. a very big Krakatoa or anything that lead to vast increases in clouds that lasted for say two years covering the entire world, then we would have cooling, vegetation would die – including plankton in the oceans hence CO2 would be less absorbed to cycle to give O2 and so on to …….

We have got a complex feedback system here and it would seem foolish to me to ignore this complexity. In another blog article I talked a bit about exponential growth (and decay). The rate of growth of C02 seems to fit an exponential model (equation) which implies that as the steepness of the curve increases then small changes on the X-axis (time) will result in larger disproportionate changes on the Y-axis (levels of CO2 etc). Which implies that if these levels have the potential to alter the behavior of the earth’s climate then whatever impact there will be is likely to be much quicker than we expect – and by implication difficult to reverse or nullify.

Coal provides around 30% of world energy needs (oil and gas 66%)), of which China’s usage represents 50% and of the rest the largest user is the USA. The volume of coal use is increasing, driven mostly by China and India’s consumption patterns. The patterns of consumption (assuming accurate) show increases in China (50%) and India (20%) and decrease in USA(-5%), but that China is doing a considerable amount on the issue of decreasing emissions, whereas India is not.

Longer term the reliance of Australia on the resources sector will continue but at some point demand will slow. To me there is an ethical issue here. Assume for a minute that the climate science is reasonably accurate then Australia is, because of its exports, contributing far more to warming than just the 1% attributed as our contribution to total green-house gas emission. We have a small population so viewed on a per capita basis we are seen by the rest of the world as excessive contributors, but not in an overall sense. China and India are the single largest contributors and our exports are partly fueling that.

On the other hand China and India’s increased development is likely to have positive impacts and hence our exports are helping with this.

Complex issue and not one that is easy to answer. Australia has signed up to international agreements to reduce emissions by 5%, I think by 2020. The now government made much about the claim that the previous government’s carbon tax would raise and continue to do so, electricity prices by some $550 pa., these figures were not disputed expect when one considered a floating price for carbon, the net effect was likely to be then around $150 pa per household. The current government’s policy of direct intervention is one I have some agreement with as I am not a big fan of these trading schemes. And at around $4b over 4 years represents a cost of $43per person, or about $131 per household, using average occupancy of 3 persons, as opposed to $150 increase in yearly electricity prices using floating price of carbon i.e. roughly the same for ONE year, but vastly less expensive on a yearly basis. It is unclear if this type of expenditure is sufficient to meet our target. I am not aware that the current government disputes the need to meet our international agreement, which implies direct acceptance of climate change science, there is just a different approach, which on a basic analysis shows household cost increases would be the same..

Australia is reliant on coal for our electricity, over 50%, so coal use is not going anywhere other than upwards, unless LPG or other sources quickly begin to take some of the increased demand. Domestic demand for coal is pitted against the commercial reality of demand from overseas, if that price is more attractive, domestic electricity suppliers will need to meet or better the price, in so far as that is an increase in input costs then the consumer will pay, hence electricity prices will increase as our domestic demand increases irrespective of what is done with a price on carbon, directly or indirectly. Unless of course providers reduce other costs e.g. labour costs, lower hourly rates, less permanent more casual etc.

All very interesting and complex, is it best handled as a political process? What other process is there?

Japan April 2013

Just a few photo’s from a week long visit to Japan in April, went to a conference and to also pay my respects in Hiroshima.

The conference was a bit lame, but I visited Hiroshima and Kyoto before staying Osaka for the conference.

The country side I saw from the trains – the trains are clockwork, fast and clear – was a patchwork of green and plowed fields. The cities were a little drab but with a number of cultural and historic buildings. In Hiroshima mostly everything has been rebuilt, the peace park is a moving place to visit.

Some pics below.


Something about maths

This problem was posed on FB by an old school friend.

For those with an over stimulated interest in mathematics, riddle me this ….. if I but $10 worth of petrol at $1 per litre I get 10 litres ….. if I buy $10 worth of petrol at $2 per litre I get 5 litres ….. if I buy $10 worth of petrol at $1.50 per litre (as $1.50 is half way between $1 and $2) I should get 7.5 litres ….. but I get 6.66 litres ….. why is it so!?

Mathematics gives us away of looking at the world and abstract problems, often by creating a model with an equation and some assumptions. The equations simply relates what is on the right hand side, normally a computation, to a single value on the left hand side. The LHS is made up of things we call variables, and arithmetic operations are performed to produce a single value.

The above problem looks like a paradox at first until it dawns on you that this is a class of problems described by the equation as y = c/x, where c is the amount of fuel in litres and x is the cost in dollars and y represents the amount per unit by cost. e.g. c=$10 and x=$2 then y = 5 litres per dollar.

The assumption made in the statement of the problem assumes a linear relationship, but the graph of y = 1/x with x>0 shows a curve with the behaviour that as x gets small then y gets big and as x gets big then y gets small, and changes in y happen quickly and not uniformly as x changes uniformly and x=1 gives y=1.

Many will know the frog in boiling water parable. The above is a demonstration of exponential growth for x>1 and unfortunately this does not have nice even spacing for the y values for evenly spaced x values and hence we can’t claim that $10 worth of petrol at $1.50 gives a result evenly divided between petrol costing $1 and $2.

We could make an Integer relationship and force the result e.g. A(x) = {(1, 10), (1.5, 7.5), (2, 5)} and so on, and if we plot these ordered pairs we would see they lie on an imaginary straight line.

Exponential relationships exist everywhere in nature – weather, smoke, economy etc. and commonly we often don’t understand that things may well be speeding up or indeed slowing down, it is probably fair to say our brains tend to shape what we see into something that fits what we know and this is mostly linear. It is why we need to be very careful with claims that appear linear when in fact they are better modeled as exponential.

You will find a very interesting discussion on how it is vital that we understand exponential growth – see Economics and Exponential Growth the point of this article is what has happened in the past may happen 50 times quicker in the future, and the 100 times, then 1000 times i.e. every accelerating or the opposite. Think population growth, carbon entering atmosphere, fish numbers etc.

And a word of caution on models and simulations of these using computers – models are abstractions of reality and exist under assumptions, which may or may not be accurate.

The stock market is an interesting system to consider – by system I mean something that has inputs and outputs, at a simple level we have money to purchase stock as the input and the twin outputs of dividends and capital growth or decay. Today the markets is monitored down to mico-seconds and buy and sell decisions are made as much by decision making software as are made by humans. Caught in the middle of all this it seems to me that it is impossible to draw trends, or those that are drawn are done so on a very much smaller time scale that say a day. Does the market behave in a linear (don’t think so) or exponential manner, probably the latter if you look at the long term chart, but at another level it could be completely random. The only reason we are interested in equations is because they allow use to try and predict things but getting linear and exponential mixed up leads to very poor predictions.

Lets turn to another idea, that of randomness and models. Ants have been studied as they come out of the nest and go to either of two food sources to the left or to the right meeting other ants that are coming back to the nest. It seems that ants to one of three things: go to the food source they have always gone to and never change, randomly choose as they emerge or are influenced to change their mind by a returning ant. I find that fascinating! Consider the most recent election and assume 70% of people vote as they always done, 20% make a random choice and 10% are influenced to change their mind at some point in the time they started thinking about voting and when they tick the box. You can easily model this with what is terms a simple stochastic process and you can run different models making different assumptions about the size of each group – clearly the larger the last group the more you maybe able to influence the result via advertising or some other intervention. The larger the random group the more difficult it becomes to predict, you only need one more vote than your opponent to win.

What I have done here is made a leave of faith that the Ant model is a good one to apply to voters, but when you reflect maybe I am not so mad for doing so – decision processes are open to study, here the voting process does seem to be able to be categorised. For instance we could add those that donkey vote, or those that will vote informal etc. Imagine also if a particular form of advertising was seen to act in an exponential manner i.e. each single day the shift of voters accelerated from one group to another due to FB advertising in a direct sense – this phenomena does in fact seem to exist i.e. phases such as campaign momentum and landside seem to suggest voters can move quickly in time.

My final ramble is about binary arithmetic, and again I find this amazing that something so simple is so, well wonderful. Computers represent stuff as on or off, two states, hence we can use a 1 or 0. How do computers subtract numbers – well by adding complements, this simplifies things in terms of circuits, reduces heat and speeds things up.

1 + complement = 0 this is the result we want. Adding 1 + 1 in binary gives 10 (thing adding 5+7 gives 12), I will not go into bases and place values.

Lets consider we have groups of three 1s and 0s to represent 0 to 8 i.e. (000), (001), (010), (011), (100), (101), (110) and (111) note there are eight groups hence (000) is 0 and (111) is 8.

(000), (001), (010), (011), (100), (101), (110) and (111)

Complement (111), (110), (101), (100), (011), (010), (001) and (000)
add 1 to each (000), (111), (110), (101), (110), (011), (010) and (001)

Now add each pair from the first row to the third row —what do you get, ignore any carry at the end? You get all zeros!

We have our result – value + complement gives ZERO—beautiful.


Phenom Pen

Last Friday we ventured to Phenom Pen for the weekend, it was a 30 minute plane trip, we opted for this rather than the 8hour bus or 4hr boat.

Prior to landing the spread of the Mekong could be seen covering a vast area. We stayed in a hotel called the Frangapani and it was right next to the merging point of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap river, which drains out of the lake by the same name.

Our journey into the hotel was via Tuk Tuk and we got to see the traffic up close, nothing exceptional, but it did feel relaxed much like Siem Reap as compared to down town HCMC, which is just load, dirty and fast!

The hotel was lovely, friendly staff and great roof top restaurant, the bed was also nice – we slept well and were up early waiting for friends so we could go off to the Killing Fields. The taxi arrived an hour early and we left just before 10am detouring to avoid the congestion caused by a protest against the Government not ceding to the  will of the people as expressed in free elections and leave office. In fact the tourist numbers were right down as the news of civil disobedience and the potential for over reaction from the police and army was keeping people away.

The Killing Fields is a somber and grisly place – the collection of skulls being hard to view, and when you realise that this was just one of many and that 3million died in about a three year period of Pol Pot rule, it is hard to understand. The prison that we visited early on route, an old school, is also a terrible reminder of the atrocities committed with the gallows still in plain sight.

At one point on route we past hordes of people on the road, both sides, and these turned out to be workers from the factories heading home for lunch, there are factories all over, newly build or in construction, often they have blue roofs and have a sinister aura, mostly there were no signs saying what the purpose of the factory was – low wages and exploitation were in the news!

Sunday saw Cathie and Helen  off shopping ALL day except for a quick lunch time visit where they interrupted John and I at the Irish pub next to our hotel – we had viewed the museum.

Monday saw us off to see an Ankor Watt type ruin at Tonle Bati and a visit to the wild life rescue farm. The latter was most unexpectedly well developed with large spaces available to all animals, many of which were victims of poachers or urbanisation or farm clearance. The Sun Bear being the  highlight.

As always the people were fantastic and it was a pleasure. Pictures at: