2013 February 7

Climate change is not new.

1938 March, Sky & Telescope, "Old-Fashioned Winters," reprinted in the 2013 March issue:

     "The Leander McCormick Observatory [in Charlottesville, Virginia]... is a U.S. Weather Bureau Station. The director himself makes the weather observations each day... "The sage of [nearby] Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, was himself an indefatigable weather observer... [and wrote in an 1804 publication]: 'A change in our climate is taking place very surely. Both heat and cold are becoming more moderate within the memory of even the middle-aged, and snows are less frequent and less deep.'...

     "For Charlottesville, both the summer and winter records show unmistakable signs that the temperatures are on the average now warmer than they used to be in 1900.... As far as one can see off-hand, there is no reason whatsoever for this continuous increase."

     Samuel Alfred Mitchell, an expert on stellar parallaxes, directed McCormick Observatory from 1913 to 1945.

2013 August 1 addendum: There is also a serious, scientific article from 1922 on climate warming that was reported by the Associated Press (AP) and published in The Washington Post. It was easy to believe short-term observations are long-term trends in 1922 just as it was twenty years ago.

     I would have thought the various scandals and the humiliation of having Al Gore around would have put an end to the political force surrounding global warming. Just as realizing the biblical book of Genesis is pro-choice on the abortion issue hasn't quelled the religious pro-life movement, there are many who insist on political force to combat global warming.

     I have no trouble with people believing our planet is getting warm and something has to be done, any more than I have trouble with people believing in the sanctity of fetal life or people believing that outlawing guns will mitigate gun crime or people believing our planet is about to be eaten by a giant star goat. It's claiming scientific or scripture backing for these opinions that irritates me.

     Al Gore has nothing to do with it. One of the tactics of my left-wing friends is to associate a negative point of view with a dumb-sounding follower. Al Gore has created more than one environmental scare and profited handsomely from his positions. He flies around the world in his jet, consuming increasing fuel for his increasing girth, claiming (as I recall) that he had bought carbon credits from India for his own consumption. It is important to realize that Al Gore (or any other politician) is not a supporting force in the global-warming controversy, but he is not a detractor either. That a slimy, corrupt politician is in favor of a position says nothing for or against it. We should look at the merits of the arguments, not the personalities involved. (That being said, I see nothing wrong with making fun of people who still believe in politicians and entertainers as valid sources of information and opinions.)

     There are six serial steps to follow to reach the conclusion that political response to global warming, now climate change, is warranted. All six should pass a test close to our courtroom concept of "beyond reasonable doubt" before we legislate on this issue. I believe all six are woefully short.
• Measurements really are showing a warming trend.
• The measured trends are statistically significant.
• The warming trend is outside usual climate fluctuations.
• Global warming is a bad thing.
• Carbon-dioxide emissions have something to do with it.
• Political response will alleviate the problem.

     Let's go through these one at a time. As we do this, remember a really-sure score of six-out-of-six is required to justify political force. Just personally believing in global warming isn't enough.

     • Measurements really are showing a warming trend.

     The fact we seem to agree on is that temperatures measured by long-term, same-place thermometers have gone up 0.6°C (one degree Fahrenheit) in the century from 1895 to 1995. What's not so clear is that we've measured an actual increase. First, the environments around the thermometers have changed. Most were placed in rural settings near big cities, easier to measure than having them way out in the country. Alas, many of those settings have changed, buildings where shopping malls were and fields before that.

     There has been tremendous political pressure to get the right answer in the quest for unbiased truth. In his book State of Fear Michael Crichton illustrates the kind of political pressure government-funded researchers feel to get desired results. The email scandals of falsified data lay those bare.

     To the question, "How can we get unbiased data on global warming?" I would answer that ship has sailed and it is now impossible. We have chosen a political process that replaces scientific inquiry and good judgment with pure politics. Since that's not satisfactory, we're stuck failing on Step One on our six-point list for global warming. But let's continue going through the list, in case somebody finds a way to get unbiased data.


     Look, I'm a mathematician and I'm a scientist. While I'm not a statistician by trade, I have statistical understanding. I have Princeton (A.B. Mathematics cum laude) and Stanford (M.S., Ph.D. Operations Research) degrees and I have thought seriously about these points. While I'm annoyed by the association of eco-scare politics with the legitimacy of science, I'm much more put off by the association of global-warming skepticism with anti-science ignorance.

     I have little doubt our planet is warmer than a century ago and I suspect, with all the mathematical models, that there is some statistical weight to that conclusion, not enough to legitimize political activism, but some. When we start getting into never-never-land pseudo-science is when we proclaim certainty that these changes are outside normal cycles, that they must be man made, that we're sure they're terrible, and that the politicians are going to do the right things about it.

     The slight of hand looks like this: If the decision is "Which Way Is Temperature Changing?" (like those "Which Coin Is Heavy Or Light" puzzles), then it's clearly going up. That's a hell-and-gone a long way from justifying the dreadful political solutions that really hurt people and don't alleviate the CO2 problem anyway.

     You don't have to renounce evolution, you don't have to claim rape is okay, and you don't have to join the pro-life protesters to renounce global-warming politics. You don't even have to renounce global warming! It's not too late to say "NO" to the politicians.

     • The measured trends are statistically significant.

     Six tenths of a degree in one hundred years may get our attention, but it's not a lot of statistical meat to chew on. In the ebb and flow of year-to-year temperature change, how much change would simply-random fluctuation cause? How steady have other measurements been over a century? The Dow Jones? The geographic area of Poland? The average batting average in major-league baseball?

     That 0.6°C change was observed and commented on before the six brutally-cold winters of 2000-2005 turned "global warming" into a "climate change" cause. Since nobody in the global-warming camp predicted the new cold, we have to figure the likelihood of the changes we observed in a climate of trying to prove a warmer climate. The statistical strength of the global-warming advocacy would have been a whole lot stronger if they had seen the record-setting winters over the past decade.

     My analogy is trying to determine if a coin is a fair heads-tails flip as opposed to being mostly heads. So I toss it in the air five times and it comes out three tails and two heads. Right away I claim that we're not looking for heads bias but any kind of bias and 60% tails is a long way from fair. I then would ask, how much fairer could it be? If I presented 2.5 heads and 2.5 tails in five flips, then wouldn't you suspect I doctored the data?

     • The warming trend is outside usual climate fluctuations.

     Weather is complicated. Even with all our experts and computers and mathematical models, we still don't really get all of it. Predicting tomorrow's weather works almost all the time, a week out is tough, and anything more than that is still a bit of a mystery. The total surprise of recent brutal-cold winters is a clue about that. So here we are predicting the weather forty years out based on a small change over the last hundred years.

     But the point here is more subtle than simple ignorance. Suppose we have honest, correct data showing a statistically-significant change in temperature. I'm sure this morning is warmer than yesterday morning. I have thermometers I trust in my house and web sites confirm it. Does that portend anything? Well, no, because the typical day-to-day variation in temperature overwhelms the difference I measured. Similarly, we should be sure that the 0.6°C change well exceeds (that means statistically exceeds) what change we would normally see in a hundred-year span. If we knew the temperature in 1350 and 1450 in France, say, then how different would we expect them to be? How confident are you that natural change is small enough that 0.6°C would stand out as unnatural?

     • Global warming is a bad thing.

     I'm told the fifteenth century (1401-1500) was a particularly prosperous time in Europe. It may even be that this century of comparative wealth was why the Renaissance gained momentum. I'm also told there were significantly warmer temperatures (presumably not from fossil fuels) at that time. The increase in agricultural output would allow fewer workers to grow the same amount of food and would allow labor to go towards other things.

     Let's look at it this way: Suppose I were King of the Whole World, unaccountable to any constitutions or laws. Let's further suppose that I decided my goal is to feed all 7 000 000 000 (7 G) people living on this planet in the most ecologically-friendly fashion. I'm going to enhance this fantasy by assuming that, somehow, one of the variables I can control is planetary temperature. What would I do?

     Let's see, I could increase the amount of arable land by clearing out rain forests. I could burn a whole lotta coal pumping water into the Sahara and Gobi deserts (like California did in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys). I might burn more coal desalinating ocean water. I could genetically modify crops to grow with fewer resources. I could increase the use of chemicals in farming, chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. Or I could warm the world's farmlands a couple of degrees which would dramatically increase food output without the environmental and energy impact of other solutions.

     Polar bears are the standard sympathetic teddy bears of the global warming movement. What about them? I don't know all the details, but wouldn't a warmer polar icecap just move them further north? They survived earlier temperature swings. Sea-level cities also survived those middle-ages changes. Warming may not be a good thing, but is there really evidence it's a bad thing? (Remember, the burden of proof, "beyond reasonable doubt," is on the global-warming-is-bad side.)

     • Carbon-dioxide emissions have something to do with it.

     The claim is that there has been a huge increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) followed by this 0.6°C increase in global temperature. As most of the CO2 increase came after 1960 and most of the temperature increase came before 1960, it certainly isn't clear the CO2 caused the warming.

     Global warming advocates ask me if I'm sure there isn't a connection. No, I'm not sure of that. I'm not sure there aren't gnomes threatening to reverse the earth's rotation. I'm not sure that the offset in solar-surface activity is not caused by having fewer good-looking women wearing bikinis. As we're not suggesting government funding preventing rotational shift and most of us aren't suggesting funding more bikini outfits, I'm not worried about my uncertainties on those matters. We are similarly not sure about CO2 and warming. Again, the burden of proof is on the we-gotta-do-something side, and I don't think it's there, or even close.

     2013 August 1 addendum: We might also add the question of whether recent measurement of increased CO2 is even man made. There have been fires and volcanoes that may also be unusual, or cyclic over decades or centuries. Some less-jaded scientists suggest the rain-forest devastation by poor farmers is responsible for more CO2. This would suggest the cure for increased-CO2 is getting these poor farmers urban factory jobs so they don't clear rain forest to feed themselves. This pushes increasing manufacturing activity, even if it burns more coal and oil.

     2015 April 3 addendum: The concept of burden of proof was explained to me by an "expert." I thought the burden of proof was based on the Scientific Method as proposed by Isaac Newton, that we try to disprove a new hypothesis and see if it can withstand close and hostile scrutiny. A liberal fellow with a law degree (and little scientific education that I know of) told me the burden of proof is always on the minority, so once a majority of so-called scientists believe something, then it is assumed to be true until those who reject it can prove they're right.

     • Political response will alleviate the problem.

     Here's the real dynamite in the global-warming argument. What have the political eco-scare activists done to help? Here in the United States, we had the Cash-For-Clunkers program. My right-wing friends claim it was a good thing because it got all those Obama bumper stickers off the road. The energy and carbon footprints of replacing a whole fleet of cars has to be staggering. That can't be good for the environment, or the economy. (Making things we don't need to make doesn't help the economy, it simply moves more-productive jobs to less-productive activity. I've heard this called the broken-window fallacy of job creation.)

     The big issue these days is ethanol made from corn. That corn used to feed tens of millions of people in Latin America. Now it's being used for fuel to alleviate global warming. Corn farmers love it, big subsidies to grow their crop combined with huge increases in their market. No wonder they're supporting the government ethanol programs.

     Now let's look at the carbon footprint of ethanol. I heard it takes 1.3 gallons of oil to grow a gallon's worth of ethanol corn. My friends who measured their gas mileage before and after ethanol in their fuel observe a decrease in mileage on the order of ten percent. If putting 10% of something else in fuel uses 10% more of it, then that additive is inert rather than a source of energy. On top of that, ethanol rots out rubber hoses and gaskets. Newer cars can be built to prevent this destruction, perhaps at greater cost, while older cars take a hit in reliability as well as performance.

     What about electric cars? They're zero-emission vehicles, so they have to be great, or so they say. Of course, that electricity comes from somewhere (not just a hole in the wall). An electric car infrastructure means 40 percent more electricity, and that 40% more isn't coming from solar, wind, or even nuclear. It's coming from coal. So your zero-emission electric car burns coal. How is that reducing global warming?

     I haven't figured this out yet, but the eco-activists who worry about carbon emissions seem to be the most actively anti-nuclear, the holy grail of carbon-free energy. We would have to cover three percent (3%) of the land area of the United States with windmills just to cover our oil-import deficit, promoted by one person I know. The ecological impact of 3% land coverage of windmills, not to mention the energy and ecological footprint of making them all, would have to be stupendous. On the other hand, 100 big nuclear electrical-generation facilities would hardly be noticeable from the air and could replace a whole carbon-burning sector.

     Similarly, I don't hear them in favor of natural gas either. When the non-Kyoto-signing United States seemed to be the only country reducing carbon emissions, the anti-fracking movement threatened that industry as well. There are tough choices to be made and the political arena isn't doing a good job with them. (Some of us aren't surprised by that.)

     The global-warming issue is not only cause for more regulation, little of which is helpful, it is also the basis of tax increases. We need to charge people for their polluting ways and, of course, government is the recipient of those funds.

     So there are six criteria that must be met to justify political action. The tally is flagrantly zero out of six, not even close on any of them. Tens of millions of people in Latin America missed dinner last night for ethanol that hurts mileage and adds carbon. Manufacturing in the west is shrinking to appease environmental activists, so there is less being produced in the world. Government has an excuse to expand thanks to eco-scare politics. If you're still on the global-warming bandwagon, then what's your share of this horrific damage?



     So what should we do?

     First, get the government out of the way. People do a darned good job of figuring things out, provided there isn't somebody in the way. Remember when the U.S. government wanted to reduce air pollution from cars, so they legislated lower emissions? Maybe that was a good thing, maybe not. Everybody else used catalytic converters, little leaf-fire-starting, hot-burning, expensive catalytic converters and Honda found a way to meet the requirement without one, so they could burn the regular, leaded gasoline we all were used to. (Didn't the American car companies also run more air through the system so they could get a lower parts-per-million without reducing pollution?) Just in case anybody doubted this was a game between the politicians and American auto makers, the government response was to legislate catalytic converters as a requirement. When rigging the score in favor of Detroit iron wasn't enough, Congress was ready to legislate the outcome, the same with ethanol, whose true cost, already known to those paying attention before we started using it, has become apparent to everybody now.

     If you're going to whine that big, bad, greedy corporations pollute and nice, decent people, especially government, would never hurt the environment, then don't look too hard. (Howcum it's always the environmentalist-liberal types who show up in gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) instead of small, high-mileage cars like mine?) I wouldn't call the military environmentalists and I would note that government intervened when people sued the railroads for air pollution from coal trains. Establishment of property rights won't make environmentalism simpler, but it will make it fairer and more efficient than any state-mandated solution to pollution. A legislated price on pollution is a halfway step to a free market, better than what have today.

     Second, get the tax man out of the picture. Many environmental solutions, most of them in my opinion, require long-term thinking to become reality. Even if the financial-market companies can't produce enough return to keep interest rates sky high, people's willingness to consume rather than to save will keep interest rates up. The effect of corporate taxes on profits is to raise the actual return required to pay a given interest rate, which means long-term thinking is punished by corporate taxes. I don't know where U.S.-federal-corporate taxes came from, since only fixed-amount, duty, and income taxes (by amendment) are permitted in our Constitution, but they have drained our industrial ability to think beyond short term gains. If you want people to think like they care about the future, then don't tax ants more than grasshoppers (Aesop).

     Third, tax consumption rather than production. If we must have a non-equal tax among American citizens, tax the piggies not the work horses. A sales tax (or a carbon tax) encourages saving because all the compound interest is automatically "pre-tax." It motivates people to use less rather than to earn less.

     Fourth, use our resources wisely while we have them. If we reduce use of coal and oil for good alternatives, that's good. Instead, we're reducing our use of fossil fuels by disabling production in the United States. Since we haven't stopped consuming stuff, it just means the industry is in countries less sensitized to these issues. Chinese manufacturing is based on coal, and lots of it. Xi'an is a bustling energy center, China's version of Texas, and it's all about coal and oil. If we're going to use these resources to make things, then why not make them here, so we keep some of those jobs here.

     Arthur Laffer (of "Laffer curve" fame in economics classes) put it best. He said it probably isn't a good thing to dump a lot of extra CO2 into the air, so why not replace all the existing federal taxes in the United States with a single, no-exceptions carbon tax? It would get rid of a lot of bad taxes and motivate conservation of coal and oil and even natural gas.

     Fifth, promote nuclear as the first alternative energy source. Clean, efficient, cheap wind and solar power will likely come from a free market, not likely from government funding. On the other hand, we already know how to build nuclear plants. Rising prices of carbon-based fuels, from scarcity or sympathy, encourages use of what we used to call "the peaceful atom." Sure, I'm worried about nuclear waste, but is it any worse than all that air pollution? And the argument for nuclear proliferation coming from nuclear power is the same as the argument that lawful guns bring about gun crime. Will it keep the bad boys in Iran and North Korea nuclear-free if we burn coal for electric power and oil for heat and transportation? (Is that argument any sillier than hoping gun control will keep criminals from getting guns? It hasn't work there either.)

     Sixth and finally, require everybody who has ever promoted electric vehicles to wear "ICOAL" shirts. If we develop an electric-car economy, then we need 40% more electricity to replace the gasoline burned. Does anybody think any alternative to coal is going to appear anytime soon to replace it as the primary fuel for that 40%? I may not feel coal is the black evil portrayed by environmentalists, but I don't want to burn almost twice as much of it to power cars. Oil in the form of gasoline is a better bet all around, and we have the infrastructure of petrol stations already built. In a free market with appropriately paid-for costs, electric cars will happen when they're cheaper and cleaner, not because they're cool and trendy.




If you want more of this kind of material then here are my American-issues essays.

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