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?