Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It only seems like "warming"...

In a separate entry, I discussed how the politics of government funding have largely created the “global warming” crisis. In this entry I’ll discuss the technical merits of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

…and here is the thing: Starting in the late 1300’s, the Earth went into a substantial period of cooling that lasted until the early 1800’s. This cold period has been called “the Little Ice Age” and was responsible, among other things, for the collapse of the thriving Viking colony on Greenland that had been established in a warmer time when southern Greenland really was “green”. The cause of the Little Ice Age has not been established conclusively, but in the early 1800’s the climate began to warm again and now, in the early 21st century, global temperatures have returned to the same levels they had been at during the Middle Ages. I’ll repeat that…global temperatures have just now returned to levels that were considered “normal” during the Middle Ages.

Proponents of anthropogenic global warming are fond of showing plots of global temperatures starting in the early 1800’s up through the present, as these show an alarming “hockey stick” increase in average global temperatures. I’ll discuss temperature trends in the last half of the 20th century presently, but if these same temperature graphs are extended back 1000 years instead of 100, the data look far less alarming. The temperature increase during the 19th and 20th centuries is seen to be merely the planet’s recovery from the so-called Little Ice Age. This 1000 year data also show that the recent increase is essentially symmetrical with the temperature decrease in the 13th and 14th centuries, i.e., the Earth warmed up at about the same rate as it cooled down. A credible argument of anthropogenic global warming would have to demonstrate warming above and beyond this recovery from an extended period of cooling. This simply has not been done and even the existence of the Little Ice Age has not entered into the popular discussion of global warming.

The 1000 year temperature data, which has been deduced from a combination of pollen counts in ice cores, tree ring growth patterns, and historical observations, has been criticized as accurate thermometers have only been generally available for the past few hundred years. However, agrarian societies, highly sensitive to the growing season, have been almost fanatical in recording dates of the first and the last frost, amounts of snow and rainfall, and any unusual weather conditions. When these dates are referenced to the lunar and solar calendars an accurate picture of temperature trends can be assembled and, as these observations are consistent with data from independent sources, i.e., pollen samples and tree ring data, this 1000 year temperature data can be viewed as entirely credible.

One of the more alarmist claims of proponents of anthropogenic global warming is that nine of the hottest years in the United States during the 20th century occurred in the 1990’s. These claims were based primarily on work published by NASA’s James Hansen and they would be alarming, indeed, if true. However, Hansen’s conclusions were based on temperatures measured at weather stations across the United States which were then averaged using an algorithm that accounted for differences in altitude and local climate. However, analysis of Hansen’s data after he made his hyperbolic claims revealed some glaring errors in his calculation methods. One of the more egregious of these was a failure to account for the increasing urbanization of the United States over the course of the 20th century. Simply put, a weather station sitting in a cow pasture in the 1930’s would read substantially lower temperatures than that same weather station sitting in a suburban parking lot in the 1960’s. When these analysis errors were corrected, it was found that the hottest years in the 20th century occurred during the 1930’s and that the early 21st century has been characterized by a slight cooling trend...again consistent with a climate where global temperatures have leveled off after recovering from an extended period of cooling.

If the increase in global temperature from the early 1800’s to the present is recognized as a recovery from an extended cooling period, then all of the global warming alarmism gets put in perspective. The supposedly dire consequences of anthropogenic global warming – melting ice packs, rising sea levels, plant and animal extinctions, droughts, floods, violent hurricanes, etc., etc., etc. – can be viewed, not as apocalyptic, end-of-life-as-we-know-it disasters, but as the consequences of an extremely complex interaction of fluctuating solar radiation, cyclic “wobbling” of the earth’s rotation on its axis, and changes in atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns. Had all of these supposedly impending disasters not been blamed on the convenient catch-all of “global warming”, the billions of dollars and thousands of man-years spent on “proving” that our impending “doom” was a result of human activities might actually have been used to study the real mechanisms for climate change. Had that been the case, not only would we have a much better understanding of the natural world we inhabit, but planners in the southwest US might have useful tools for predicting the duration of the current drought, maritime nations might have tools for planning shipping routes in the high Arctic, agriculturalists might have more accurate knowledge of growing seasons…the list of benefits for serious climate research is a long one. Unfortunately for all of us, these resources have been squandered on a failed effort to use government-funded science to drive an agenda.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Harry Reid's Clean (Sort of) Energy Summit 2.0

I attended a conference on Monday where a Texas oil man was roundly praised as a visionary for proposing that the United States solve its emerging energy crisis by drilling for domestic natural gas. A conference chaired by Newt Gingrich to support his “drill here, drill now” campaign? No…this was Harry Reid’s Clean Energy Summit 2.0. Let me say that again, surrounded by such notables as Harry Reid, Al Gore, Wesley Clark, Stephen Chu, Van Jones, and John Podesta, T. Boone Pickens proposed drilling into the country’s plentiful domestic natural gas reserves as a way of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. In any other venue, such an opinion would produce shrieks of rage from environmentalists, but this was Clean Energy Summit 2.0 and Pickens’ pronouncement was heralded as nothing short of brilliant and visionary. The fact that power produced by the combustion of natural gas generates copious quantities of carbon dioxide managed to get a weak whimper out of Al Gore but was otherwise ignored in this gathering of environment-friendly types. Stephen Chu was also silent in spite of the fact that studies done by his own Department of Energy have predicted that a scenario where 20% of the country’s power is generated by wind and solar backed up by gas turbines would generate more carbon dioxide than a scenario where that 20% was generated by gas turbines alone. This seemingly bizarre conclusion is a result of the fact that a gas turbine runs most efficiently and most cleanly when it is operated continuously; while constantly spinning them up and down to accommodate gaps in “renewable” generation is extremely inefficient.

Given that one year ago, T. Boone had stood with Harry at his first Clean Energy Summit and declared that wind generation was the power source of the future for the US, this turnaround might well seem astounding. However, clearly the past year has been an educational one for Mr. Pickens. It doesn’t take a whole lot of thinking to recognize that wind generators and solar arrays only generate power when the wind blows or the sun shines. Since power cannot, at present, be stored, what this means is that for every megawatt of wind or solar power that is installed, a megawatt of back-up generating capacity is required. The only type of power generation currently available that can be brought on line quickly to accommodate the loss of capacity due to clouds covering a solar array or the wind dying is a natural gas turbine. Once your thought process has brought you to this point, it’s not a very long walk to the recognition that, if you have to install the gas turbine capacity to back up wind and solar generators, you can run the gas turbines 24/7, which is much more efficient than running them intermittently, and cut your capital costs significantly by not installing the wind and solar plants at all. If Pickens has come to the conclusion that a commitment to install gas turbine capacity makes an investment in wind and solar unnecessary, he kept it to himself on Monday. However, in the year between Harry’s two Clean Energy Summits, Pickens has divested himself of his wind power investments and shifted his focus to the recovery of natural gas from domestic oil shale. After that, a phone call to Harry – accompanied by a sizable contribution to Harry’s reelection campaign, one suspects – seems to have been sufficient to change the Clean Energy agenda. In a sense, Pickens’ proposal has driven a stake through the heart of massive wind and solar generation in the near future for this country, especially if separate entities own and operate the gas turbines generators and wind power fields.

T. Boone Pickens’ announcement was an astounding departure from the theme of the previous Summit where reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through the use of renewable energy sources was the focus. In truth, natural gas is a “renewable” energy source, but more on that later. While a great deal of lip service was paid the the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at Monday’s Summit, especially out of Al Gore, Pickens’ announcement and the general acquiescence of the group, pretty much cut the legs out from under any argument that the conference had anything to do with combating climate change. What the conference was clearly about was jobs as speaker after speaker stressed. Two union representatives made the pointed comment that unemployment in construction unions in northern Nevada was running around 50%, while a small number of large projects in southern Nevada had kept that unemployment number to around 25%. Consequently, there was a great deal of discussion about the weatherization program money that the Department of Energy has released to the states being used to put these construction workers back to work. Whether or not iron workers, electricians, and plumbers will jump at the opportunity to go around chalking windows remains to be seen. Another widely acclaimed source of new jobs was the manufacture, installation, and maintenance of all the megawatts of wind and solar generators discussed in last year’s Summit. The fact that T. Boone’s initiative has for all practical purposes pulled the plug on those installations seems to have escaped the attention of the attendees as has the fact that the major manufacturers of wind generators and solar panels are currently all off-shore…but why should such details be allowed to interfere with the whole feel-good, self-congratulatory attitude of the day.

The one throwback to last year’s Summit was the always-entertaining Al Gore, who has not toned down his global warming rhetoric a bit…and yes, he still calls it “global warming”. Coming at a time when the carefully orchestrated fabric of the global warming farce has begun to unravel, Al’s doom and gloom is growing increasingly comical. Recent revelations of ten years of steadily decreasing global temperatures, of James Hansen’s much celebrated historical temperature trends being seriously flawed through either sloppy science or outright fraud, of studies that have demonstrated that ocean currents are the primary drivers of short-term climate change not atmospheric composition, of observations of Arctic ice that have shown the observed melting is due to a cyclic temperature change known popularly as “spring” have slowly, but surely begun to shine sunlight on the vampire of “global warming”…and Al Gore is increasingly being relegated to the position of America’s “crazy uncle” that everyone feels compelled to invite to Thanksgiving dinner, but can’t wait until he drinks enough to pass out.

Finally, natural gas as a “renewable resource”…yes, it is. Up until about 25 years ago, it was thought that natural gas has a similar source as oil, i.e., the decomposition of organic matter buried in the earth, and much of the natural gas found in proximity to oil reserves almost certainly derived from organic sources. However, as plate tectonics and movements of the Earth’s crust have become better understood, there is increasing recognition that the vast majority of natural gas deposits are inorganic in origin and that these deposits are constantly being renewed. In a grossly over-simplified nutshell: At the leading edge of every continental plate is a subduction zone. One of the most well-known subduction zones is marked by the San Andreas fault where the North American plate is riding up over the Pacific plate. As the Pacific plate slides under the North American plate, it carries millions of tons or sea water and carbonate deposits with it as the plate travels down towards the mantle. The highly reducing conditions deep underground cause the water and carbonates to react to form methane, the primary component of natural gas. It is estimated that the entire contents of the ocean are cycled through subduction zones in this way about once every 10 million years. The upshot here is that there is an enormous amount of natural gas being actively generated every year. It is renewable and we’re not running out. Note also that the carbonate deposits on the ocean floor are caused by carbon dioxide dissolving in sea water and then precipitating out, mostly as either magnesium or calcium carbonate, so this raw material for methane production is also being renewed by the very carbon dioxide being produced by the combustion of methane.

While his approach has changed radically in the past year, T. Boone Pickens has remained consistent in stating that his primary motivation is to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, most of which is owned by regimes not necessarily friendly to us. His shift from a focus on “green” technologies to natural gas represents, I suspect, a hard-eyed look at the economics of wind and solar power. In spite of the strange bedfellows he is keeping these days, his ideas are rational, make economic and political sense, and deserve everyone’s support.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Global warming and the technocrats

So…if I were to ask the question, who caused the global warming crisis, the politically popular response would, of course, be “Mankind!” In truth, I would have to agree. Surprised? Don’t be, because it is important to distinguish between the physical cause (or causes) of changing global temperatures and the cause of the present global warming “crisis.” Yes, yes…I know that the formal term is now “climate change”, but I’ll get to that particular nuance presently. I will argue that the present “crisis” is, indeed, caused by mankind, but not mankind, in general, but by specific groups who have reaped huge benefits by manufacturing this “crisis”. If you are looking for a tin-foil hat, black helicopter, New World Order conspiracy in this, be prepared for disappointment. I will argue that the true culprit in all this is the way that scientific research is presently being funded in this country and in the world in general.

Scientific research that is far removed from commercial application is generally referred to as “basic research.” Thirty years ago, private industry funded a large fraction of the on-going basic research. Large corporations, such as General Electric, AT&T, General Motors, and IBM, all had large basic research budgets and well-equipped and staffed research and development facilities. However, industry increasingly began to focus more on applied research and product development, i.e., efforts aimed at fairly narrowly focused technologies and specific commercial products. As corporations evaluated their cost structures to become more competitive in the global market place, it became far easier to justify the cost of a program if it promised to bring a specific product to market in 18 months than it was to argue that research into phonon scattering in Type III-V semiconductors might lead to something useful at some indeterminate time in the future. This sharp decrease in industrial involvement in basic research is highlighted by the fact that between 1965 and 1987, there were nine Nobel prizes in Physics awarded to scientists working in industrial laboratories. In the 22 years since 1987, there have been only two Nobel laureates to come out of industry.

With basic research funding in industry decreasing, the Federal government became the prime and essentially only source of funding in many fields. This radically changed scientific research and not for the better. To see how this “sole source” funding of basic research affected the scientific community, it is instructive to examine another, earlier “crisis”…ozone depletion.

In the late 70’s, a hole in the ozone layer was discovered over Antarctica. Subsequent investigation showed that this hole was growing. As ozone serves to reduce the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth’s surface, there was concern that a depletion or disappearance of the ozone layer would have serious health consequences. Further work advanced the theory that ozone depletion was caused by a class of chlorinated fluorocarbons, (CFC’s). Cries for the reduction of CFC emissions soon followed. Exactly why these CFC emissions chose to destroy ozone in a part of the globe far removed from the emission sources in the northern hemisphere was never explained. None the less, the media, whores for sensationalism that they are, immediately picked up on the predictions of the dire consequences of ozone depletion: skin cancer epidemics, cities, such as Denver, at high altitude rendered uninhabitable, dozens, hundreds, even thousands of animal species extinct, and essentially the end of life as we know it by the end of the 20th century unless CFC emissions were stopped. As a consequence, the chlorinated fluorocarbon industry, which supplied propellants for aerosols, refrigerants, industrial solvents, among other applications, in the United States and Europe was eviscerated. Unfortunately, this did not reduce CFC emissions as the manufacture of these chemicals was simply transferred to China and India, where leaders were unimpressed with warnings of the approaching Apocalypse. Unregulated manufacture and use in these countries actually resulted in an increase in global CFC emissions.

However, casual observation shows that the turn of the century has come and gone without life as we know it ending, not even a rash – as it were – of skin cancers in Denver…and in late 2007, NASA very quietly announced that the hole in the ozone over Antarctica was shrinking, in spite of CFC emissions being at an all time high. Oops.

So…how is it possible that hundreds of scientists could write thousands of peer-reviewed journal papers and attend dozens of conferences addressing the CFC problem and all of them be so very, very wrong? The answer lies in how this work was funded and how that funding process corrupts the peer-review process. However, before we get to the funding process, a short digression on peer-review for those not familiar with it: Peer review is really a primary mechanism for insuring the integrity or published research. As a scientist, I do some research with I think is worthy of sharing, so I write a paper describing my work and the conclusions I draw from it. I pick an appropriate technical journal and submit it for publication. Prior to putting it in print, however, the journal editors will submit copies of my paper to two or three other experts in my field, who will read my paper critically, point out potential errors, make suggestions, and, on rare occasions, even reject the work as being unworthy of publication. These reviews are “single blind”…the reviewers will know I am the author, but I will never know who my reviewers are. Not a perfect system by any means, but it had functioned reasonably well for decades…until the government became everyone’s source for research funding.

Now for the funding process…most offices in the Executive Branch fund research, NASA, the NSF, NIH, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, etc. All of these agencies are beholden to Congress for their operating budgets and competition for congressional funding between agencies is fierce and the competition for funds within a give agency is equally fierce. For example, both NASA and DOE operate their own internal laboratories, as well as funding sponsored work at universities and private industries. As a consequence, anyone involved in research associated with any of these agencies is in constant fund-raising mode…justifying past work, proposing new programs (and new funding) that is in competition with other new programs, both inside and outside of their agency. Now, given this highly competitive environment, imagine you are the director of the Office of Fungus Investigation within the Department of Agriculture – I hope that I just made this office up; if not, my apologies to fungus investigators for what follows. As the director of an obscure office that most people don’t know exists, you are constantly struggling for what little funding you get. Then one day, a report from a project you are funding comes in that describes a fungus that grows rapidly and can cause a rash when it comes in contact with human flesh. You’re at the beginning of your funding cycle and are looking for new programs to propose and, given the human connection on this one, you propose an expanded program to further investigate this fungus that causes skin disease in humans. Your proposal works its way up through the bureaucracy with various embellishments added to make it look a little more “sexy” to the appropriate congressional committees. At some point, either a really bored reporter looking for some story, any story out of the Department of Agriculture or an actual press release happens and, all of a sudden, it is all over the news that there is a flesh-eating fungus threatening humans. Panic, press conferences, congressional hearings, and a general consensus that there’s a “crisis” and something must be done…and what is done is to pour funds into the Office of Fungus Investigation. As the director, you see your budget doubled, tripled, quadrupled, you’re hiring staff, sending out requests for proposals and funding those that promise to address the flesh-eating fungus crisis, giving press conferences, and fielding requests to travel the country giving talks on the status of the “crisis”…and you have 50,000 followers on your Twitter account.

Papers on the flesh-eating fungus begin to get published and there is some criticism that the connection between the fungus and the reported rashes was a little ambiguous. Those critical of the original conclusion submit proposals to investigate whether the fungus really is responsible for the rash. But, you’re in the middle of a “crisis” that must be addressed and you don’t have time to get bogged down in cause-and-effect details…besides, if the “crisis” goes away, so does your huge budget and the media attention and you’re back to sitting in your office trying to think of a proposal that will make pond scum sound interesting. You reject their proposal, saying that it is “non-responsive”. The proposers have nowhere else to go for funding, so they submit another proposal that promises to investigate the growth of the fungus once it contacts human flesh. This one you fund.

In the meantime, it turns out that the original rash that was connected to the flesh-eating fungus, as it is now known, turns out to be nothing more than a case of eczema. No matter…you’re living large and your program has taken on a life (and funding) of its own. You deny the report, attempt to discredit the source, and keep on growing your office…
…and this is how an ozone depletion or global warming “crisis” gets created. The template for the global warming crisis was created with the ozone layer “crisis”. Once Congress is convinced that there is a serious problem that must be addressed and starts funding it, government research offices start to grow to meet the crisis and, once grown, the crisis must be perpetuated to ensure continued funding. The process becomes self-perpetuating as other agencies recognize a potentially lucrative source of funds and start their own programs to address the “crisis”. For example, while the Department of Energy does not fund climate research, they can ask for (and have gotten) funding to help “fix” the problem, i.e., development of renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, etc. Even when evidence starts to accumulate that there is no crisis, these agencies will struggle desperately to maintain the “crisis” status. Hence, now that we have experienced a decade of cooling temperatures, government scientists assure us that this is just a temporary respite before temperatures will start to rise alarmingly again and the term “climate change” is introduced. This last a bit of particularly brilliant legerdemain in that it quietly shifts the “crisis” from one of global warming to the idea that any climate change (warming, cooling, whatever…) contains the seeds of disaster.
One may ask, “Where is the scientific integrity here?” and the answer is that integrity is not always a priority when one’s livelihood is at stake. In an earlier time, there were multiple funding sources for atmospheric and climate research. A scientist working for Bell Labs could stand up at a conference and question the assumptions being made by a NASA scientist or give a research paper a bad review for muddled reasoning without any fear of repercussions beyond some hurt feelings. With a single source of funding, where the funding agency is primarily concerned with perpetuating itself and its programs, anyone espousing views opposing the agencies dogma are highly unlikely to be funded and alternative viewpoints will very rarely reach the light of day. Not only do these opposing views not get funded, scientists will be hesitant to even express them for fear of hurting their chances for future funding. Mainstream scientific research, consequently, devolves to little more than a big touchy-feely love fest where everybody agrees, everybody gets along, and everybody is happy, but critical thinking, the constant questioning of results and conclusions, and the revision of “pet” hypotheses to fit new information – the very core of scientific endeavor for centuries – has long since been kicked to the curb.

I have focused my discussion here on the process by which research is funded and how funding dominated by government agencies almost insures the creation of “crises” and I have avoided any discussion of the evidence that is being used to convince the public and, more importantly, Congress that there is a global warming…sorry, climate change crisis. That’s a subject of for different time.

Cancer of convenience...

Having lost a mother and a grandmother to ovarian cancer, I know that it is not something to be taken lightly. So when my older brother told me a few months back that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, it was one of those "the gods hate us" moments. However, the cancer was detected at a very early stage and the doctor told my 57 year old brother, "You know, this is a very slow growing cancer and if you were 10 years older I wouldn't recommend that we even treat it." Since then, my brother has begun is treatment, which seems to be proceeding well and the prognosis is, thankfully, excellent.

Which brings me to Christopher Dodd...under a lot of criticism for getting a sweetheart mortgage and then lying about it and his poll numbers against likely rivals falling like Lindsay Lohan at the end of a happy hour, he announces he has prostate cancer and, magically, the criticism stops, he is bombarded with well wishes, and I have already read one reference to his "brave fight with cancer."

I'm sorry...I have to call "bullshit" on this one. Not on the cancer, on the timing. It's just too, too convenient. If Senator Dodd has, indeed, just been diagnosed with "an early stage" of prostate cancer, I suspect he was given the option of either not treating it at all or waiting and monitoring its progress before they resorted to anything invasive. More cynically, it is possible that the diagnosis is months - years? - old, and the senator has pulled the cancer card out of his sleeve to save his butt right now.

Obviously, I have no inside information on the senator's condition and, as a fellow human, I sincerely hope his treatment is successful. But the timing on all this just seems, well...convenient.