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Thermal inertia and global warming
Jon Lebkowsky, 17 Mar 05

Global climate change is not only inevitable, but might be much farther along than we think because of a time lag in the oceans' response to atmospheric temperatures. "This time lag means policymakers cannot afford to wait to tackle climate change until its consequences become painful, because by then they will already be committed to further change, they urge. 'The feeling is that if things are getting bad, you hit the stop button. But even if you do, the climate continues to change,' says Gerald Meehl, a climatologist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado." This is a powerful argument for worldchanging mitigation strategies. [Link]

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Is it even real? Can somebody refute this article I found on

Coconuts in Wyoming?

Thursday, June 17, 2004

By Steven Milloy

It's almost summer in the northern hemisphere, and that can only mean one thing — it's time for global-warming (search) activists to sound the alarm.

Though temperatures obviously rise due to natural causes during the summer, global-warming activists like to take advantage of this time to dramatize their cause.

This year is no exception, as global-climate worry-warts gathered this week in Washington, D.C., at a conference sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (search) to convulse about the Bush administration's refusal to embrace the Kyoto global-warming treaty (search) and clamp down on emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

Speakers at the conference said they hoped to convince the U.S. public to pressure politicians into policy changes.

"In this country, it depends a lot on what happens in the next election," geochemist Daniel Schrag of Harvard University told Reuters. "I don't think we can expect to change the minds of this administration in the next couple of months."

Schrag then went on to provide alarmist factoids about the build-up of carbon dioxide (search) in the atmosphere. He said the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 380 parts per million — higher than it has been for at least the past 430,000 years.

"In the next 100 years, unless immediate action is taken, carbon-dioxide levels will rise to between 800 and 1,000 parts per million. The last time carbon dioxide was that high was during the Eocene (search), 55 to 36 million years ago," Schrag told Reuters.

At that time, he said, "palm trees lived in Wyoming, crocodiles lived in the Arctic, Antarctica was a pine forest and sea level was at least 300 feet higher than today."

But is atmospheric carbon dioxide all that really separates us from coconuts in Laramie and Inuit crocodile wrestling?

Hardly. About 95 percent of the greenhouse effect (search) — the atmospheric warming due to the trapping of solar energy that makes life possible on Earth — is due to water vapor, 99.999 percent of which is of natural origin.

The other 5 percent of the greenhouse effect is due to carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other miscellaneous gases.

Although carbon dioxide is the most dominant of these gases by volume, comprising about 99.4 percent, the other gases trap more heat. So the contribution of carbon dioxide to the 5 percent of the greenhouse effect not due to water vapor is much less than 99.4 percent — it's about 72 percent.

Carbon dioxide, therefore, is responsible for roughly 3.6 percent of the greenhouse effect (5 percent, representing the percentage of the greenhouse effect not due to water vapor, multiplied by 72 percent, representing the percentage of that 5 percent due to carbon dioxide).

But carbon dioxide is produced both naturally and by humans. About 97 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide is natural, in fact. Only about 3 percent is from human activity.

That means that only about 0.11 percent of the greenhouse effect (that is, 3 percent of 3.6 percent) is due to human releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Put another way, about 99.89 percent of the greenhouse effect has nothing to do with carbon-dioxide emissions from human activity.

Factoring in the other greenhouse gases, the total human contribution to the greenhouse effect is about 0.3 percent. In other words, about 99.7 percent of the greenhouse effect is due entirely to nature.

When you consider that the greenhouse effect contributes about 60 degrees Fahrenheit to the Earth's average temperature (which would be about zero degrees Fahrenheit without the greenhouse effect), it doesn't really seem like atmospheric carbon dioxide levels — even if they triple or quadruple because of human activities — are all that important to global climate.

If the carbon dioxide-emissions reductions called for by the Kyoto global warming treaty were implemented, human greenhouse contributions would be reduced by about 0.03 percent. Atmospheric physicist Fred Singer says this would have an "imperceptible effect on future temperatures — one-twentieth of a degree by 2050."

As the Kyoto protocol would require cutting energy use by about 30 percent by 2010 — necessarily causing inestimable negative economic consequences — it's easy to see why U.S. politicians can't run away from the Kyoto protocol fast enough.

It seems we don't need to worry about coconuts in Wyoming so much as the nutty global warmers who meet every summer in Washington, D.C

Posted by: Jesse on 18 Mar 05

That sounds like Reagan's old saw about trees and pollution.

[For the young'uns: In a 1981 speech US President Ronald Reagan claimed that trees cause more pollution that automobiles do. He was right, sort of -- pine (and eucalyptus) forests give off phytochemicals that can behave like smog, and decomposing leaves in deciduous forests give off massive amounts of carbon dioxide every autumn. What Reagan forgot to mention is that in a balanced ecosystem, every gas given off by one plant is absorbed by another, keeping tree pollution in check. Whereas cars just excrete pollution without absorbing any.]

So this article claims that most of the greenhouse effect is caused by "nature". I wouldn't doubt that a bit; the Earth has had some form of greenhouse effect since it formed an atmosphere, and without a natural greenhouse effect the Earth's temperature would be about 65 degrees cooler, an average of about -15F. As for their claim that only 0.11% of greenhouse gases are caused by humans, I think that sounds a little low, but let's accept their numbers for the time being.

The problem, as with the "tree vs car pollution" story, is that that extra 0.11% that is not natural, not part of a balanced ecosystem. And while anthropogenic CO2 may be responsible for 0.11% of greenhouse gases, CO2 is a much more efficient absorber of infrared radiation than water vapor, leading to much more atmospheric warming per unit volume.

Posted by: Patrick Di Justo on 18 Mar 05

Is anyone examining which plants absorb the most CO2, and if large scale cultivation of such might counteract human skewing of the cycle? Or even genetic engineering to encourage it's removal from the atmosphere? It seems to me we have two problems - one being the immediate prevention of too much heat energy in the atmosphere, which would suggest a temporary technological approach (say a filter between the earth and the sun). The other being a longer term removal of CO2 which is also vital for the ecosystem (see the acidification of the oceans for proof). I think sooner or later these actions will become inevitable, but I want to know - who is looking at them NOW?
We have to be prepared for the worst - it's no good just hoping (any longer) that purely CO2 output reduction is going to be enough. All the evidence suggests that it's not. It's time to get realistic - before ALL the ice melts.

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 18 Mar 05

Daniel, I think there was some hope early-on that the plant biosphere would respond to increased CO2, and just grow. It would have been one big dynamic sink for CO2.

IIRC tests were done at local levels (increasing CO2 levels in fields) which showed some increases in growth (C3/C4 plants, etc.).

Unfortunately, we really know that all the plant species that exist in the world are already out there growing, and they haven't responded enough to keep CO2 in check.

I don't know of any CO2-gathering superspecies that could be cultivated to change that.

Posted by: odograph on 18 Mar 05

Yeast is a lot less than 0.11% of the bread, but yeast makes the bread happen. B-vitamins are a lot less than 0.11% of your body, but without them, you die.

An academic economist once told me that energy plays no significant role in the economy because "the entire energy sector is less than 8% of GDP."

Jeez, do people really fall for this line of "reasoning"?

Posted by: David Foley on 18 Mar 05

The really *important* line of Milloy's article, the one with his real message, is the last one. He wants to paint people concerned about global warming as "nutty."

That's the real take-away line. It's the one that people will remember after forgetting the tiresome numbers thing.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 18 Mar 05

But my question is if the numbers are accurate. If they are (and I doubt he is outright lying), then the Earth is merely going through a warming trend just like it has in the past, and we won't be able to do shit about it.

Posted by: Jesse on 19 Mar 05

Jesse, I don't think his numbers actually say that. All his numbers do is raise questions, which can only be answered by computer modeling, and comparing model results to real climate.

Guys like this (forgive me for that generalization) want to raise questions, skip the modeling (indeed they often malign modeling), and then have you accept their conculsion.

If they don't give you the model, they are just saying some numbers, and then asking you to take their word for it.

Posted by: odograph on 19 Mar 05

So then what models have been done to disprove or prove his numbers?

Posted by: Jesse on 19 Mar 05

I could point you to lots of models that point to global warming, but it might be easier to point out what's missing in that first article, After working through his numbers he comes down to this:

"Factoring in the other greenhouse gases, the total human contribution to the greenhouse effect is about 0.3 percent. In other words, about 99.7 percent of the greenhouse effect is due entirely to nature.

When you consider that the greenhouse effect contributes about 60 degrees Fahrenheit to the Earth's average temperature (which would be about zero degrees Fahrenheit without the greenhouse effect), it doesn't really seem like atmospheric carbon dioxide levels — even if they triple or quadruple because of human activities — are all that important to global climate."

Do you notice that word "seem" in there? He doesn't model, and tell us what the hard math says about changing CO2 levels. He wants us, the general public, who have not done extensive studies in climatology to go with our gut feel.

How does it "seem" to me? I've only got a basic B.S. in chemistry. It seems to me that you can't know without grinding the numbers.

But he probably isn't talking to me. He probably wants people who will think about it even less.

FWIW, these guys grind the numbers:

Posted by: odograph on 20 Mar 05

The physical quantities of the gasses matter less than the balance of the fluxes. What the article (deliberately I think) obscured is that fluxes of atmospheric gasses were in balance before the introduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses: CO2, methane, CFC's, nitrogen oxides, etc.

Imagine a bathtub, being filled at the same rate it drains. There will be a constant level of water in the tub. Now increase the fill rate, just a little - say 1 or 2 percent. It would be absurd to say, "This increase is so small, relative to the previous amount of water, that it seems that the tub won't fill." But of course the tub will fill. And it will fill even faster if, like our economy, you're dedicated to exponentially increasing the fill rate, doubling it about every 20 years.

Go to for a grounding in the science.

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Mar 05

Actauly no the gases never were and never will be in a state of balance. Thats one of the key forces that moves the climate engine of our planet that gasses escape from the earth and gasses go back in again in variable amounts and thus cause changes in climate over time.

Now that doesnt mean we arnt poopin in our bed it just means even if we arnt mother nature sure is;/ Iether way tomarrow will stink.

Posted by: wintermane on 20 Mar 05

But isn't a fact that the Earth has always had an evolving climate? We've had many recorded ice ages and warming trends. Hell, there was a "Little" ice age only 600 years ago. It seems to me that people who thing Earth's climate is stable are sadly mistaken.

Posted by: Jesse on 20 Mar 05

The statement that water vapour causes 95% of the greenhouse effect seems wrong. This nice article about the greenhouse effect

says that is around 60%. Wikipedia agrees,

CO2 accounts for ~20(or 26%) so the writer of the article seems to be quoting wrong figures to make his case.

Posted by: Hasse Schougaard on 20 Mar 05



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